Paging Dr. Google
Nitin K Sethi, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
New York-Presbyterian Hospital
Weill Cornell Medical Center
New York, NY
I get quite a few patients who prior to coming to see me for a neurological consultation have already googled their disease or at least the disease they think they have. Many of the readers of my blog too, it seems spend a significant amount of their time searching the internet for information about their medical condition. Paging Dr. Google to come to the rescue can have its pros and cons. Lets start with the pros.
Dr. Google obviously is well informed, a vast sea of knowledge, thousands and thousands of pages of health related information is available at the click of a mouse. He is quick, rarely moody (unless you have a slow connection) and moreover cheap. One can spend hours with him, for even esoteric neurological conditions he has an answer, he sees patients 24/7 and even does house calls (though a café is at times his favorite de novo office). The internet already has and continues to revolutionize medicine and how health information is disseminated. When I did my internal medicine residency in India in the late 1990’s, the internet was still not available. I remember spending long hours in the National Medical Library in New Delhi pulling up articles I needed to research my thesis. The work was tedious, back breaking (big volumes of dust covered journals to be pulled off the shelves) and painstakingly slow. Even though I was a medical resident, I found it difficult to find relevant articles and information. A lay person had it even tougher. There were a few books available which touched on general medical conditions like how to take care of your diabetes and blood pressure. For anything else, you needed to pay a visit to your neighborhood doctor or to a specialist in a tertiary hospital.
Then along came Dr. Google. Smart and tech savvy. A few search words and up pops the answer, pages and pages of it too. For doctors, the internet has being a blessing. We can now share and assess each other’s work so much easily. When confronted with a difficult case, sitting in my office in New York City, with a click of the mouse I can find out if any of my colleagues have seen something similar. How did they treat this vexing neurological problem foxing me, what were their results and is there anything new on the treatment horizon? No more going to the medical library and trying to search through the journals. All the journals are available on the internet and Dr. Google makes my life easier by listing out which article appeared in which journal. In fact recently someone raised a relevant point, are the days of the medical library numbered? For the patient too, Dr. Google is a blessing. There are many good patient oriented websites which come up when Dr. Google is called upon for an opinion. Patients can learn more about their disease and this information gives them confidence and a hence of actively doing something to help themselves. Apart from health and disease related websites, Dr. Google also churns up blogs and various foundations providing much needed information to patients and caregivers alike. But does Dr. Google have any chinks in his armor?
Yes, he does. He can be wrong just like any of us mortal doctors. If you feed him the wrong history, he shall make a wrong diagnosis. Patient’s frequently search Dr. Google with key words. If the key words themselves are wrong, the diagnosis shall be flawed from the start. Here in lies Dr. Google’s weakness or rather our weakness. Dr. Google may diagnose you with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative condition with no cure currently because your history to him included key words like muscle twitches and weakness. It is only after a visit to your mortal neurologist that a correct diagnosis of benign fasciculations is made.
So the moral of the story is that Dr. Google is indeed a physician extraordinary but he is no substitute to an actual visit to your physician. You may read about the disease you feel you have but always, always do consult your physician because unlike Dr. Google he has the advantage of sitting down in front of you, taking a thorough history and conducting a clinical examination. Dr. Google’s services are most helpful when he is paged with the right information in hand.