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Googling Your Symptoms Is Not What The Doctor Ordered

Turns out Dr Google isn't even a licensed physician.

15/05/2017 11:17 AM AEST
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Does it do more harm or good to tell people about diseases and illnesses without actually being able to help them?

"Please don't look it up on Google when you get home," is how my doctor usually ends our appointments.

Clearly his expectations of me are pretty low. I don't wait till I get home to Google that stuff; I'm on the phone checking it out while I wait for the receptionist to submit my claim to Medicare.

It's not that I don't trust my doctor. I do. implicitly. He's open to me asking as many questions as I want and he's honest and generous in his answers. But still, the hypochondriac in me likes to check if he's missed anything crucial I should know. You can never be too sure there isn't a psychosomatic symptom I may not yet have developed.

I understand that googling symptoms is wrong. Mainly, because I understand anyone can write whatever they want on the internet with scant regard to fact or genuine scientific research. Yet I have an almost compulsive need to look up medications that I am prescribed.

This is why the other day after I was prescribed yet another medication (sleeplessness is so much fun) I typed in the medication name and searched. I'm careful in my choice of search words and the links that I'll follow because I know if someone doesn't like a drug or has a bad experience they are quick to share it with the world.

Sadly, and conversely, if a person has the expected outcome -- a cessation of their illness with no side effects -- they don't knock people over in their stampede to tell the internet they were satisfied. In fact, the wisened old woman in me treats positive reviews in general as paid or planted by the company.

I probably need to be prescribed something for my cynicism.

So when I searched the new addition to my medicine cabinet I carefully selected the links that would show me unbiased and scientific reporting. The first link directed me to a site which claims to be the best health information resource in the country.

I merrily read about how the medication works, what its side effects could be and when I should or should not take the drug. I have to admit it was a little boring but when you are looking stuff up about your health, 'boring' is not a bad word.

But then I reached the end of the article and I got to the bit that was masquerading as what appeared to be lifestyle website. "You may also like" the site proudly informed me, and then went on to list three links for Roxithromycin from three different chemists. I was curious because I don't really "like" drugs. I was also baffled because Roxithromycin seems to treat pharyngitis and I don't even have a tickle in my throat. In fact the medication I was researching had as much connection to sore throats as a lounge chair does to the fast food industry.

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Of course they're a business and they need to make money to continue to give us free information. Everyone wants free information, even (especially) hypochondriacs. Their site is free to access and is funded by advertising and content licensing, but surely it's not very sensible or smart to suggest drugs people may like? No wonder every health enthusiast thinks they are a doctor.

I didn't want other drugs, so I went back to my search and followed a link to a Government-owned health resource. Another (boring) summation of the medication with a link to the aforementioned website at the end. But even better, they have a very useful symptom checker highlighted on their site.

"Choose a symptom" it shouted out at me. "What symptom is bothering you most?" it implored. I don't blame them that my specific symptom is not listed in their nifty little widget (if anyone could tell me the cure for recurring nightmares, I would be really grateful), but something about it made me feel uncomfortable.

Are medical sites like these used by "regular people" or just by us hypochondriacs? Is the aim to take the information to the doctor or should you just be able to self prescribe? Does it do more harm or good to tell people about diseases and illnesses without actually being able to help them?

I really appreciate the technology but I think I may have it right when I do the searching in the doctor's room.

But maybe next time I need to do it during the appointment and not after it.

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