Diagnosing Dr Google (Australian Doctor 26 April 2012)

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s a weird world. As a child, I expected things would in time become explicable. Instead, I now do more eye-rolling and head-shaking than a Pentecostal patient with antipsychotic-induced dyskinesia.

Earlier this week, Google News featured a flurry of articles about the misdiagnosis of personal health problems by ‘Dr Google’.

That’s the Dr Google defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a person medically qualified by Google’s search engine to diagnose symptoms of sickness”, not the somewhat amusing Dr Google website at fffff.at/dr-google

Osler believed that a physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient. Presumably all self-diagnosis by Google is therefore the act of a fool.

Our planet no longer hosts Western black rhinoceroses or Zanzibar leopards. Investigative journalists are going the same way. This means health-related news is largely rehashed media releases interspersed with — when the reporter gets lucky — entertaining comments from arguing experts. The articles about ‘Dr Google’ fitted the template but the press release catalysing the stories wasn’t immediately apparent.

I felt this aspect of the ‘Dr Google’ story should be investigated without using Google. A quick search on Bing led me to a highly ranked and widely linked list of the best engines and resources to use during different types of searches. I scanned down the page and happened to notice its number one suggestion as a credible source of “facts about places”. It was the CIA’s website.

I abandoned this approach and returned to Google. A few seconds later, I discovered that the press release that sparked all the stories was from a UK firm selling treatment for bacterial vaginosis. They must have been thrilled at the response.

Apparently women have been self-diagnosing their genital discharges online and reaching erroneous conclusions. To add insult to injury, other firms’ products are then purchased.

Surprisingly, it seems women leap to the often correct diagnosis of thrush. This is despite anti-viral makers educating women that their self-diagnosed thrush might actually be herpes.

Fortunately, the supplier of bacterial vaginosis gel now has an online self-diagnosis tool. To check its impact, I tried googling, “what is my vaginal discharge?” The company’s website was nowhere to be seen in the results. Media coverage helps but search engine optimisation still rules.

The AMA’s response in the ‘Dr Google’ stories included appropriate warnings that many websites are designed for “lightening your pocket”. Online comments noted that many medical associations are also designed for lightening your pocket.

Other online comments complained that their doctors just used Google during consultations. Ouch! I often use Google with patients.

Last week I saw a toddler who had been sick for several days and was now breaking out in a rash. I use online information and pictures to educate patients about their conditions, so I googled “sixth disease”. (If you’re unfamiliar with sixth disease, Google it. Roseola infantum and exanthem subitum are harder to spell).

To my surprise and relief, Dad immediately chirped in that my online search was not required. The consultation was minutes shorter because he was just there to get a second opinion. To his own.

Thank you, Dr Google. You must be no fool.

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