A Doctor’s Dos and Don’ts for Googling Your Symptoms

Why it’s best to take online medical research with a grain of salt

By Susan Tulino

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and noticed an unexplained bruise or mole, or awakened with a migraine headache strong enough to take down an army, and gone to the internet to find out the cause? Of course you have.

Doctors themselves are guilty of looking up medical questions online, so it’s no surprise that patients are, too. Often our curiosity gets the best of us before we can get to the doctor, or we want to know if our condition is worth a visit in the first place.

“Some patients do find valuable information in their own research, and use it to pose educated questions that make our visit more productive,” said Frederick W. Parker, III, MD, M.Ed, Novant Health UVA Health System Bull Run Family Medicine – Manassas. “However, in most cases, the pre-appointment Googling has caused confusion, worry or even a worst-case-scenario mindset that has them convinced that their death is imminent. People take a local symptom and use it to make a mountain out of a molehill.”

For instance, Dr. Parker often sees patients who have experienced numbness or tingling in their fingers, toes or face. “They search a combination of ‘muscle twitching’ and ‘numbness’ and Google tells them they have a neuromuscular disease, or – even worse – that they have had a stroke.”

Dr. Parker recently treated a college student who had experienced abdominal pain, gastric symptoms and weight gain. When a rash appeared on her lower body, she learned through Google that this combination of symptoms could be a sign of celiac disease or lactose intolerance. The patient promptly cut out gluten and dairy from her diet, but neglected to visit the doctor for weeks. In the process she deprived her body of nutrients found in these ingredients without any definitive diagnosis.

Know Where to Look

The internet offers plenty of reliable medical websites for patients. Sites like WebMD are written and reviewed by trained medical professionals, but use plain language that doesn’t require a medical degree to understand.

But, what may start out as a well-intentioned search for causes of a sore throat can quickly evolve into reading one person’s experience with an unlikely and unfortunate twist in which their simple sore throat was a symptom of a rare life-threatening illness.

In the medical world, these isolated accounts are known as “case studies,” and professionals are strictly cautioned to avoid generalizing their outcomes.

There’s also a reason doctors are strictly prohibited from treating themselves. To diagnose a medical condition, doctors must be objective. Dr. Parker recalls his experience in medical school as he learned about various conditions and their symptoms. It led to harmless itching causing thoughts of “do I have such-and-such disease?” Doctors are just like you, and can’t be objective about diagnosing themselves. Neither can you.

Still, it’s not realistic to tell patients to stop online searches. Dr. Parker shares a few guidelines that he shares with patients and adheres to himself.

  1. Use reliable sites. Most major medical centers and local doctor’s offices offer patient-friendly information and links. These are great places to start. Government sites, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, are excellent.
  2. Beware of personalized cases, blogs and tales of woe. These are more likely to play on  your emotions and prevent objectivity.
  3. Avoid sites that profit by selling treatments or cures.
  4. Know yourself and your body. If you are prone to worry or fearing the worst, limit the time you spend online or completely avoid it. Remember that rare diagnoses are unlikely to apply to you.
  5. Do learn more about conditions and diseases. One great use for web searches is to research a diagnosis you have been given by a doctor to learn more about the symptoms, dangers and treatment options.
  6. Prepare for your office visits to maximize the time you have with your doctor. Many reputable sites make recommendations for questions to ask about medical conditions.

When used with caution, the Internet can be a valuable and productive part of your medical toolbox, but it’s important to remember that it is only a part. Before you cut out milk and bread from your diet, consider going to see a doctor first.

To find a family medicine physician at Novant Health UVA Health System, please visit https://www.novanthealthuva.org/find-a-doctor.aspx?sspecialty=family+medicine.

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