Google is not your doctor

This post is more than 13 years old.

Posted at 08:00 on 16 February 2011

Now if you start getting symptoms that make your heart miss a beat, it’s tempting in these days of instant information to turn to Google. Or Wikipedia.

Don’t do it!

I’ve learned this the hard way the past couple of months. Some of the symptoms I’ve been getting during and since my recent particularly nasty bout of flu have made me wonder whether there was something serious going on.

So I went to Google, typed in my symptoms, only to be led to various articles that told me I could drop dead at any moment. I turned to Wikipedia, and the information it presented from Reliable Sources told me exactly the same.

Then yesterday I saw my doctor and he told me that this is unlikely. In fact, he was quite firm that he doesn’t think I have any significant, immediate, life-threatening concerns. He wants to do some tests, but he put me at ease about everything. He’s good at that.

If you’re worried about your health, avoid Google. Avoid Wikipedia. Go to your doctor.

Your doctor knows your medical history. He knows what you actually have. Google doesn’t. Google only knows what you think you have, and even then, it conflates that with things that your loved ones have, things you think your loved ones have, things you think your favourite celebrities have, and things that the characters in the novel that you’re trying to write think they have. Google will lead you onto discussion forums frequented by (a) people who actually do have significant, immediate, life-threatening concerns, (b) people who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about, (c) conspiracy theorists, and (d) spammers.

Google will present you with scare stories about misdiagnoses that make you mistrust your doctor. While these are tragic, they are very much the exception rather than the rule, and they only make the headlines because they are unusual.  Google will lead you to articles presenting worst-case scenarios alongside everyday ailments that can be treated with over-the-counter remedies. Google will present all this to you in a blunt, deadpan, just-the-facts-ma’am manner. You’ll end up diagnosing yourself with mutually contradictory disorders. And then, to add insult to injury, for the next three weeks, every website you visit will carry adverts for quack remedies for syndromes that kids you don’t have don't have.

Your doctor, on the other hand, will filter out all the irrelevant stuff for you. He won’t tell you about incurable life-threatening diseases when all you have is Team Foundation Syndrome, which can be easily treated by switching to Mercurial. And because you are in a face-to-face interaction with someone who is trained to help worried people, and you have the non-verbal communication element, even if the news is bad or esoteric, it will be easier to handle.

If you want an online resource that can give you advice on what to do, go to a site such as the NHS symptom checker. It will ask you a series of questions about your symptoms, and based on your responses, it will tell you whether to call an ambulance, go to the chemist for an over-the-counter remedy, or see your doctor.