25/05/2016 5:08 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST

Does Our Reliance On Doctor Google Need A Check Up?

Google won't replace a medical consultation any time soon.

Perhaps our doctors will start by replacing the skeleton mannequins and model ears with a masterclass in using Google.
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Perhaps our doctors will start by replacing the skeleton mannequins and model ears with a masterclass in using Google.

Google has revealed that we're all health-obsessed. On their official blog, they tell us that one of every 20 Google searches is for health-related information -- that makes up about 60 billion searches per year. And doctors observe that patients are not just reading up about their symptoms, they're coming to their appointments with presentations on what they've found.

"Most clinicians will be familiar with the increasingly frequent scenario of a patient entering the consult room with a sizeable stack of printed webpages containing symptoms, pictures and a dreaded list of potential (and often grave) diagnoses," wrote Dr. Cindy Shin-Yi Lin and Dr. William Huynh in a recent article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

Knowledge may be power, but the problem is that this keenness slows down the diagnostic process. "That will undoubtedly commit the clinician to an arduous task of analysing (and not infrequently, refuting) this information with the 'cyberchondriac' patient," wrote the authors.

Even Google implies that we shouldn't be overgoogling our medical woes. Upon a cursory search for "googling symptoms", the first page is vehemently against it with results such as "Googling your symptoms is more dangerous than cancer itself", "Here's why Googling your symptoms is a terrible idea" and "9 Things You're Doing That Drive Your Doctor Crazy".

But Dr. Lin and Dr. Huynh have a different take. "Medical professionals will need to learn to embrace this behaviour," they wrote. "[I]t is no longer a question of whether 'to Google or not to Google', as obtaining information (both medical and non-medical) has become so integrated into the modern age of the internet."

They point out that doctors can take advantage of the fact that Google is so powerful and patients have so much energy to do their own research. Rather than attempting to dissuade googling altogether, medical professionals could improve healthcare by guiding their patients' focus towards finding more reliable information.

That's because there are a few impurities when it comes to using Google as a research tool, such as how their ranking algorithm works. Commercial online publishers are active in optimising their websites to help them appear more prominently in search results. This means that a popular article on skin cancer will appear on the crucial first page of search results, while ground-breaking research in a non-optimised academic journal article may languish deeper down.

Our confirmation bias is not helping us to find the right information either. With the amount of content out there, we can find well-reasoned arguments on just about any topic. If you're convinced that tanning beds have nothing to do with skin cancer, you can google something targeted such as "tanning beds don't cause skin cancer' and find information from branded media sources that support this point of view. You can end your search with a nod, and walk away feeling assured.

But how can Google be used for medical good? Research makes a few suggestions that medical professionals could consider recommended patients, but which anyone could take on.

1. Always look at the source of the information
Dr. Lin and Dr. Huynh suggest doctors could "direct patients to credible internet (preferably endorsed) sources that provide objective and evidence-based medical information". It can bring substance to your search to favour quality assured medical sources such as Better Health Channel or PubMed, as opposed to unstructured message boards, Yahoo Answers or Wikipedia.

2. Use Google to build health literacy, as opposed to diagnosing yourself
"[A] more appropriately educated patient may in fact be able to facilitate a shared clinical decision-making model, thereby promoting better healthcare rather than hindering it," wrote the article authors. A better use of the power of Google could be to learn about health in general, as opposed to scavenging for a diagnosis. This could improve your ability to use Google to self-diagnose in the future.

3. Don't be too specific in your search
It's good practice in research not to assume too many things. A search which is too specific has a risk of leading you down a misleading path. Finding one message board poster on page 23 of a very specific Google search is probably not the most conclusive way to diagnose your headache -- even if it can feel comforting to finally find an answer that seems to make sense.

Overall, Google won't replace a medical consultation any time soon. But in light of such a mega-trend as the use of Google for health information, doctors may be compelled to find ways to take advantage of this consumer wave. Perhaps our doctors will start by replacing the skeleton mannequins and model ears with a masterclass in using Google, with a goal to empower patients via research skills for better health outcomes and patient experiences.