Life Wellbeing Dr Google and the perils of self-diagnosis online
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Dr Google and the perils of self-diagnosis online

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Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 4.10.56 PMAllison*, 23, knows all too well the problems that can arise from substituting a real-life doctor with the internet.

“I was getting really bad headaches and, in my anxious internet travels, read about the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis.”

Extensive reading of online forums and sites like WebMD allowed Allison to pinpoint the precise symptoms of the serious illness and before long, she was experiencing similar sensations.

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“I was waking up feeling numb on one side of my body, with tingling in my fingers and toes, dizziness and extreme headaches,” Allison recalls.

With her severe symptoms preventing her from functioning, Allison finally visited her doctor and regurgitated the symptoms she had seen online. The doctor agreed they could potentially fit with a diagnosis of MS and, to be cautious, sent Allison to have an MRI.

“There was nothing wrong. I had been over-stressed and tired and Googling my headaches had meant the anxiety had escalated.”

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As more elements of our lives move online, cases like Allison’s are numerous.

A study by UK law firm Irwin Mitchell found that, even when it came their children’s health, mothers were more likely to use Google as their first port of call for medical advice.

Of the 2000 mothers surveyed, 28 per cent of respondents said that typing symptoms into Google is the first thing they do when their child complains of being ill.

“The first risk is that you can talk yourself into almost anything,” says Dr Bob Montgomery, honorary fellow at the Australian Psychological Society and clinical, forensic and health psychologist.

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 4.08.50 PM“It’s legitimate to take steps and have concern but the worst thing you can do is think ‘I will resolve my anxiety by looking on the internet’.”

Here are the main issues with a quick web search when you’re sick:

You’re delaying your diagnosis

“If you’re sitting around thinking ‘I should go to the doctor’, you should have gone by now,” Dr Ronald McCoy from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners says.

Whether it’s because of fear or laziness, delaying a visit to the doctor will only cause trouble down the line if something really is wrong.

The internet sometimes lies

“There’s a lot of absolute garbage on the internet,” Dr Montgomery says.

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 4.06.03 PMMisleading information will waste your time and make you anxious. What’s more, you’re not in a position to evaluate its accuracy.

Some websites may also have an ulterior motive: money.

“A lot of it is aimed at getting you to buy something,” Dr Montgomery adds. It’s better to spend that cash at your local GP. 

You’re not a trained doctor

When you Google your health, “you’re stumbling into a field where your expertise is lacking,” Dr Montgomery says.

“You’re going to make mistakes because you don’t know what to look for.”

Computers are a great source of information, but they can’t ask all the right questions and neither can you. 

You could be dealing with a different problem – anxiety

People who are doing this are already telling you ‘I’m worried and I tend to worry about my health a lot’” Dr Montgomery says.

“Frequently worrying about physical health is a hallmark of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a condition which is quite common and often debilitating.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 4.11.37 PMSufferers of GAD will focus on any part of their bodily functions that they think is abnormal and take it as clear evidence that they’re about to die.

A proper doctor is able to rule out physical illnesses but my also be able to identify if there’s an underlying mental issue.

In contrast, sitting in front of Google will merely feed the anxiety rather than treat it.

How to use the internet properly

“We don’t want to discourage people from taking an active interest in their health,” Dr McCoy says.

Instead of a wide-reaching Google search, Dr McCoy encourages you to ask you local GP for a list of trustworthy sites you can head to when you’re concerned.

If you find information on the internet that you find concerning, print it out and take it to your doctor who can clarify its accuracy. You’ll soon build up a list of reliable health sources that you can visit before heading to your GP.

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