I’ve started making a habit of asking my patients whether they have Googled their symptoms. After all, one in three adults in the United States has searched the internet about a medical condition, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report.
But then I’m careful to say, “It’s OK if you have. Most everyone does. Let’s talk about what you learned.”
Let’s face it: We all wonder what could be wrong when we don’t feel well. Who can resist peering into the vast depot of internet information for a possible answer?
Unfortunately, this sometimes turns into an “elephant” in the exam room that no one wants to acknowledge. And it should not have to be so. Your research is part of the story you bring with you, and you should speak up about it. Your doctor should be interested, and able to guide you to the most reliable online sources.
How do I direct my own patients? I suggest they look for health system or government sites that focus on education and awareness, rather than product sales.
Doctors know that their patients are researching their symptoms online, yet patients often believe that they need to hide this. Many times when I have stumbled onto a patient’s clinical internet research during our conversation, the person will look uneasy and say, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but …” or “I’m not a doctor but …”
This is unfortunate, and used to leave me wondering whether there was something lacking in our relationship that made the patient feel the need to resort to covert self-diagnosis. The truth is, internet research is a portal into someone’s truest worries, and can be a real connector for doctors and patients.
Now, many of my colleagues and I have learned to think of the internet as an invisible version of a family member whom patients may bring with them to their visit. Just as I try always to make everyone in the exam room feel at ease, I will try to make my patients feel comfortable sharing whatever they have learned before coming in. Then we can all work together to find solutions and address all fears and concerns.
What is the moral of the story? It’s safe and important to talk to your doctor about what you googled.