Be Careful Seeking Health Advice From Dr. Google

Be Careful Seeking Health Advice From Dr. Google

Eye twitching? Weird stomach pain? Leg cramp? Is it a symptom of a serious disease? Chances are you probably did a quick Google search to find out. And Google usually has an answer in a little box at the top of the search results. The information is displayed in a concise, easy-to-understand way, making it an attractive solution for filling in knowledge gaps. But look closer, and you’ll see that some answers contradict themselves, others come from questionable sources and sometimes they contain factual errors.

The authors of a vast trove of health information on the Internet are not written by trained medical professionals. Rather, they are “content marketers” hired to produce articles to rank high on Google searches. That means that much of Google’s highest ranked medical advice is written by a person whose job is to simply bring people to a website.

Lacking the medical background to write original medical information, content marketers source their writing from other websites. While the CDC, NIH and even WebMD are great medical resources, their knowledge will likely be mixed in with data points from other online medical “sources” like Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia and various marketing pages designed to sell a product thus contributing to the ever growing cycle of manufactured, and often false, medical advice.

The ability to get an instant diagnosis has turned many people into cyberchondriacs. Whether it was a headache or some strange abdominal pain, studies have shown that when people Googled it many were immediately convinced they had cancer. It’s also been discovered that people tend to form a quick impression just from scanning the search results, without even following the links. As a result, people are more likely to feel frightened or overwhelmed based on what Google returns on the first page of search results – especially if markers are manipulating their search terms and site just to rank high in search results so they can get that click-though regardless of how truthful or helpful their content may prove to be.

If that wasn’t bad enough, not only can you end up freaking yourself out when you visit Dr. Google, you could also be unwittingly revealing personal information. Many security experts caution that Google will not always respect your privacy and so you should treat it like talking to a guy in a park with a megaphone. Chance are every time you visit a web page seeking information about a health condition there is a chance that data is being collected by third parties. Health information can be sensitive, yet there is little regulation over how this information is collected, how long it’s kept and how it’s used.  

Canada’s privacy watchdog ruled in 2014 that Google’s use of sensitive health information violated Canada’s privacy laws after it allowed advertisements to be directed at a consumer who had searched for devices to treat sleep apnea.

It is possible to find reliable medical advice online. What’s important is that you apply it right, keep your GP in the loop, and get over the habit of jumping to conclusions. Use online resources to supplement your knowledge. Instead of using it to diagnose or treat a condition by yourself, focus on information that tells you how to choose a medical specialist, how to improve your chances of getting an accurate diagnosis.  Use online resources to improve your health and fitness levels. For example, you can use it to start exercising at home or to eat smarter. Finally, online forums and support groups can be invaluable to keep your outlook positive to help you manage your condition.

You want to think carefully about the way your question is phrased for Google. For instance, if you are looking for possible treatments for diabetes, you want to be specific in your search query by typing ‘treatment for diabetes. And if you didn’t find cinnamon listed on any site in your search results as a possible remedy source then chances are cinnamon might not be helpful.

Also, a good rule of thumb is sites with a lot of advertising tend to be less reliable. The information sometimes has bias or sometimes can be out of date.

The College of Family Physicians of Canada has a website that curates online health information about chronic diseases, linked only to reliable Canadian, non-commercial sources. The address is:

Unlike a web page, a real doctor has the knowledge, training, and experience to piece together the elements of your medical condition, arrive at an accurate diagnosis, and provide you with remedial information. This is why healthcare is poised to continue having a place for humans doctors long after robots have taken over many human jobs in various fields.



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