An Appointment With Doctor Google

By Ysabel Celis

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Photo: Tobias Gutmann

The bell rings and you feel a jolt of happiness in you. The weekend, finally! You quickly run to the bus stop so you can catch the earliest bus home. Once on the bus, you pant, heart racing from the intense cardio you had just done. You are too excited to get home and watch the second season of Stranger Things to care, though.

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Photo: Netflix

You reach your destination and run towards home the moment you leave the bus. You rush up the stairs to your bedroom, and fall onto your bed. You reach for your laptop, and type “Netflix” on the search engine. The corners of your lips curl upwards in anticipation of another binge-worthy season, following the lives of the characters introduced in the first season. You are all set for a perfect Friday night.

Halfway through the first episode, you begin to notice a painful pinching sensation in the lower left part of your stomach. Harnessing the most powerful tool in your possession that sits in front of you, you type “pinching pain on the lower left side of my stomach” straight into Google.

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You’re greeted with thousands of results, and after a few minutes’ reading you realise that Dr. Google diagnosed you with appendicitis, gallstones and, oh no, – cancer! You instantly jump into the conclusion that you’re going to die. Then, you begin to reminisce all the good times you’ve had with your family  and friends. The depressing thought ultimately ruins your perfect Friday night. Thanks Dr. Google.

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Who is Dr. Google?

We live in a modern era where everything is within reach; communication, information, entertainment, and cat videos. Having a device in your hand that can answer all the questions of life is convenient. However, if misused, it can trigger some negative emotions – especially when it comes to health concerns.

‘Doctor Google’ is the term used to describe Google’s role in self-diagnosis and medical inquiries.

Pain on your neck? Google it.

Pain on the back of your eye? Google it.

Pain on your lower abdomen? Google it.

The results? Probably Hepatitis ABCD with lung cancer.

On the bright side, at least you know the name for that particular ailment.

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We have appointments with the Google search engine instead of an actual doctor – and this is a problem when we mishandle our Internet usage. Websites such as WebMD and Mayo Clinic are usually on the first page of the Google results (we don’t talk about the second page. It doesn’t exist). Their results, or in this case, ‘diagnosis’, conjures fear rather than assurance or medical prescriptions. Heffernan, a journalist for the New York Times, stated that great access  to health websites is an issue that  plays a significant role in public debates regarding health care (Heffernan). However, there are underlying factors of health sites:

“It’s not only a waste of time, but it’s also a disorder in and of itself — one that preys on the fear and vulnerability of its users to sell them half-truths and, eventually, pills.”
– Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times

When seeking medical advice, Google is not a reliable place to seek a diagnosis . Mostly, Google just provides advice and a range of possible diagnoses. According to an article released by ABC Australia, Google’s algorithms only present factual and valid answers, but these do not necessarily  lead to accurate results or truths. To prove this, I Googled “what does pain in my left arm mean?” and the result was:

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This proves how Google’s algorithms present results that are generalized and factual, but not evident and relevant to in my case. The pain in my left arm could indicate how I’ve been using my arm as a pillow during my nap. Google does help, but only to an extent. In this case, checkmate Google. You’re not relevant.

 

The Psychology Behind Self-diagnosis

I personally am guilty of asking Dr. Google about my symptoms, and I am very sure you have done it as well – we are all liable. An excessive reliance upon Dr. Google can lead to a phenomena called, “cyberchondria”. Cyberchondria is when an individual uses the Internet to diagnose their symptoms, which usually leads to an unnecessary worry over their health. Why do we feel the need to Google our simple headache or lower abdominal pain?

The deal behind this is we want to receive the answers straight to the point so we can deal with it ourselves, giving us a sense of autonomy. Autonomy is not wrong, in fact, it determines our overall self-governance and self-preservation in our physical and psychological well-being. The fault of autonomy is how it is misused. In this case, through self-diagnosis.

Self-diagnosis is not a ‘millennial’ culture. When we experience a slight headache, we take  paracetamol to ease the pain. We have over-the-counter medicines for a reason. However, serious physical and mental health issues cannot be treated with over-the-counter drugs, we need a proper diagnosis from a professional doctor. The urgency of getting a proper diagnosis is receiving treatment and medical assurance. Dr. Google does provide medical insights and an hypothesis on what your symptoms may be. The negative effects of relying on Dr. Google can cause an individual into worrisome assumptions. But why do we like to seek our concerns through Google anyway?

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Art: Rombutan

Virginia Hughes released a blog on the National Geographic: Phenomena site. In her blog, she wrote about a study by Thomas Fergus, a psychologist from Baylor University, who conducted a survey about how people are drawn into searching their symptoms online.

“In that subset, Fergus found a significant relationship between the frequency of online health searches and the amount of anxiety the person felt about his or her health, as you’d probably expect.”
– Virginia Hughes, National Geographic: Phenomena

According to Fergus, the reason for our health based online research is due to our overlaying curiosity and uncertainty for our health and condition. Us Googling our “pink, itchy rashes” leads us to many questions on what it is. What I understood from Fergus is the manifest problem is not based on the “pink, itchy rashes”, but on its latent problem, which is being too distressed over the rash. Being too preoccupied with uncertainty can develop fear. According to the limbic system in psychology, when there is an exposure to threatening situations, our mind reacts with coping or defense mechanism that affects our survival. It is our very instinct to deal with uncertainty and finding answers will relieve our anxiety.

 

Time to call an actual doctor

There is nothing wrong with searching up your symptoms. Googling your symptoms is one way for you to consult a doctor. If you have abdominal pain, it is urgent to seek medical help from doctors since it could be an underlying illness being masked by another illness. Or if you feel on edge all the time, you could have a mental disorder that requires professional help. Getting a medical check up will not only give you the proper diagnosis, but also the treatment, assurance, and help you need. While I understand that going to the doctor does require your money and time, and sometimes, it could cost greatly; however, it is always better to consider going to a doctor with an actual PhD about your health issues in order for you to sustain your well-being instead of a WebMD.

 

References:

  1. Frankt, A 2016, ‘Using the Web or an App Instead of Seeing a Doctor? Caution Is Advised’, The New York Times, 11 July, accessed 5 November 2017, <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/using-the-web-or-an-app-before-seeing-a-doctor-caution-is-advised.html&gt;.
  2. Heffernan, V 2011, ‘A Prescription for Fear’, The New York Times, 4 February, accessed 10 November 2017, <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/06/magazine/06FOB-Medium-t.html&gt;.
  3. Hughes, V 2013, Symptoms of Cyberchondria, National Geographic: Phenomena, accessed 7 November 2017,<http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/30/symptoms-of-cyberchondria/&gt;.
  4. Pillay, S 2010, The Dangers of Self Diagnosis, Psychology Today, accessed 8 November 2017, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/debunking-myths-the-mind/201005/the-dangers-self-diagnosis&gt;.
  5. Willis, P 2015, ‘Google seeks facts, but a higher truth is not so easy’,  ABC Australia, 30 September, accessed 7 November 2017, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-30/willis-google-seeks-facts,-but-a-higher-truth-is-not-so-easy/6815878&gt;.
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