Sometimes it can feel like doctors know everything (at least they claim to). So, that's why some patients are a bit surprised when they find out that their physician uses Google to make diagnosis decisions and to stay up to date on research. Have no fear, though! There are actually plenty of reasons that this isn't such a bad idea.
Keep reading to hear 15 stories of how, when, and why a doctor might turn to the Internet to help them practice medicine. You might be a bit surprised to hear some of their answers, but we can almost guarantee that it will give you a new appreciation for all the hard work your physician does.
1. All About The Wording
"We definitely do. We use Google, Wikipedia and lots of free and subscription apps to find what we're looking for. The difference is that we know a) how to word our search to find what we need and b) how to filter the crap and pseudoscientific results out. It makes a big difference when you search for, say, "allodynia and edema and blanching erythema" rather than "painful swollen and red" or can interpret articles and studies with a critical eye for their use of statistics (i.e. Looking for absolute rather than relative risk reduction, power of the study, inclusion/exclusion criteria, number needed to treat, efficacy vs effectiveness, etc.) That's all stuff you learn in medical school, then as you progress through practice you get better at pattern recognition. Medical education is as much about learning how to learn as it is about what you learn in school."
This is an interesting perspective on the medical profession. It definitely makes us feel better to know that even the pros have to look things up sometimes.
2. Full Disclosure
Funny And Co.
"One time a doctor told me 'I've never actually prescribed this medication before, so let me do some research first!'"
As you'll see in the rest of this article, there are plenty of good reasons a physician might use Google to help treat a sick patient.
3. Up To Date
"I'm a doctor and I have no problem checking my computer to look something up. Usually, it is a website you pay for/ your hospital pays for called Up to Date which also has a medication interaction program you can plug meds into to make sure they don't kill the patient. Wheeless orthopedics is pretty legit for musculoskeletal stuff. When patients bring in stuff from there it's pretty accurate. Side note: when I'm in a room with a patient and I tell them I'm going to look at their MRI or X-ray on my computer in my office because I have a better monitor, it's because I have to go to the bathroom."
Up To Date is a great resource for any physician looking for information on medical conditions or drug interactions. It's definitely a must-have.
4. You Can't Know It All
Know Your Meme
"Veterinarian here. Yes, we look things up all the time. Medicine is an incredibly complicated subject, and it gets more and more complex every day as we continue to make new discoveries. No doctor, no matter how intelligent, knows everything about every condition. The difference between a medical professional and a layperson is that we have the knowledge and training to filter through the search results and identify reliable information. I am constantly asking myself questions like "Does this information make sense based on what I know about the pathogenesis of this disease?" That said, I rarely use Google except occasionally looking for articles on Google Scholar. The amount of terrible information out there, especially for veterinary medicine, is mind boggling. Most of the professional veterinary organizations have websites with good information on them, and many have forums where clinicians share cases and experiences, so that's where I go first. I also keep a decent library of reference texts. At the end of the day though, I am the one who makes the final diagnosis, not the internet."
When it comes down to it, it is the physician's ultimate responsibility to make the diagnosis. Though the internet can help, the doctor has to make the final call.
5. Search Engine Woes
We Know Memes
"My doctor once talked me through what she could find about my symptoms on Google. It was a little surreal at first, but she explained how there are reputable medical journals out there and their search functions are rubbish and going through each one would take a long time, so they use Google fairly frequently when diagnosing and treating patients."
If every medical journal had an effective search function, it's likely that doctors wouldn't have to use Google quite so often. They should work on that.
6. Google In The ED
"I've worked in 2 emergency departments and doctors have no shame in googling something they don't know. It really saves them from making an error and allows them to continuously learn different things. In the ER you see so many different things and are bound to come across cases so unique that you hardly have any background knowledge. Anything googled usually comes from a reliable medical journal and docs generally cross reference to verify information."
There's no shame in using Google, people! Especially in a kind of crazy place like the Emergency Department.
7. The Google School Of Medicine
"Fourth year med student here. My diploma might as well say the Google School of Medicine when I graduate."
Pretty much every student can relate to this struggle. Using Google is just so much more convenient than cracking the spine of a book.
8. Differential Diagnosis
"Med student here: When a patient comes in with a complaint, the doctor's job is a cross between solving a puzzle and doing a scavenger hunt. You give your complaint and your history, and the doc's job is to ask focused questions and try to find out if you're experiencing any other symptoms you might not be aware of, and also mentally discard "symptoms" that the patient might think are related to the main issue but really are just something on the side. All the while, we're building as complete as possible list of all the possible things that could be wrong with you and eliminating the things we think aren't. Then we do the physical exam or order tests to either confirm our main suspicion and rule out everything else that we haven't already eliminated. Now your doctor doesn't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the literally hundreds of possible conditions that could be wrong with a patient when he's making this list in his head. Especially if what you could have is rare or you have a stray symptom that isn't typically seen in that condition. In that case, Google can be invaluable. It's also helpful if you want to be directed to a site that will give you the most up-to-date treatment guidelines (since they're changing all the time for chronic conditions)."
This soon-to-be physician gave a great summary of how doctors make diagnoses. Part of being an informed patient is understanding this process, so read up!
9. "That's How We Learn"
"Doctors, especially specialty trainees, do a lot of googling. There are so many rare, weird and wacky conditions out there that no one can possibly know everything. I've spent the past two months on a pediatrics team, and at one time we had a kid with an incredibly rare congenital syndrome (heart on the wrong side, liver in the middle, multiple non-functioning spleens). Thankfully we didn't actually have to manage his chronic issues because they were being managed by specialists in another city, but only one of the senior specialists at our hospital even knew what it was. The registrars, residents and medical students did a lot of googling. Because that's how we learn. With acute management you will find that guidelines are constantly evolving. The algorithm for dealing with a patient with a prolonged fit of epilepsy that you might have memorized a few years has probably changed two or three times since then (midaz, midaz, phenytoin, btw). There's no shame in doing a quick Google to find the most recent guidelines. It's far better to treat your patient safely and with confidence than to try to do something you're not comfortable with off the top of your head. The emergency department is probably the part of the hospital where google and other online resources are most used. Presentations to ED are extremely diverse, with no two shifts seeing the same case-mix. If a quick Google can save a call to the consultant at 3AM and still allow you to treat the patient safely and effectively, then that's what most doctors are going to do. Google is an incredibly powerful tool in the right hands, but only if you know how to use it. In medical school, we are taught skills to effectively search the volumes of information online to pick out what is relevant and discard what is not. A site like WebMD may tell you that you have cancer, based on your non-specific fatigue and weight loss, and sure, there may be a chance. A doctor would take into consideration your presenting complaint, your medical history and any investigations that might be done, to work out a diagnosis. Aside from Google we tend to use clinical practice guidelines (local health system, eTG, etc), clinical decision support making tools (UpToDate, BMJ BestPractice), Medscape, review journal articles and more."
This is definitely a well thought out answer. The sources the author gave at the end are excellent for medical information.
10. No Mistakes Here
"I've seen anesthesiologists Google things in the OR and I've seen surgeons have people Google info for them in the middle of cases. There is no shame in double checking and getting it right rather than making a big mistake."
The Hippocratic Oath (which all doctors are required to take) instructs physicians to "do no harm." Sometimes, that means looking something up on Google in order to prevent an error.
"I look things on the internet all the time. I often do it with the patient. The other day I had a patient tell me she was on a birth control pill I had never heard of. I looked it up and it was a generic for a very common pill I immediately recognized. We then had a very useful discussion regarding side effects and options. The patient appreciated what I did. When I left the room, the resident I was working with commented that he was impressed by the interaction and was surprised how much being honest with the patient about not recognizing the generic helped improve the visit. I also developed my own website Medtwice.com for patient education. It gives me a place to direct my patients so I know they have a place with quality information (as least as quality as I may be)."
This is just another example of honesty being the best policy. At the end of the day, patients appreciate being told the truth!
12. Pick And Choose
"They definitely do, and very often. Usually they know which things are reliable and how to search based on their medical knowledge. If you go to the right sites/journals, and you know which symptoms to type in, and how to accurately determine if you really have those symptoms, then it can be very accurate. You also have to know how to discard inaccurate results (if it gives you a rare blood disease only found in Africa, and you have never left Kentucky, you probably don't have it). Source: Wife is a doctor."
The common thread here is that physicians are trained to differentiate between real and phony sources. That's what you pay them for, after all.
13. Super AIDS
"Family practice physician here. I tend to run into mostly the same illnesses and complaints day in and day out, but I will google symptoms if differential diagnosis has ruled out the most common options. I will say, however, that for MOST problems that bring people to the doctor (upper respiratory infections, minor injuries) the websites are actually quite accurate. Their drawback is, of course, encouraging the hypochondriacs that they might have a rare, incurable form of cancer, a tropical disease, or super AIDS."
There are definitely drawbacks to using the internet for medical research, but physicians seem to agree that it has a time and place.
14. I'll Get Back To You
We Know Memes
"I went to the doctor last month, and she was like 'I'm going to be honest... I'm not totally sure, but what I can say is it's not life threatening or serious at all. I'm going to ask my colleague quickly for her advice, and then after you leave today I'm going to Google it, look around, and call you next week to tell you what I found."
At least this doctor was honest. Sometimes being up from at the beginning can save you lots of issues later down the road.
15. No Strings Attached
We Know Memes
"I think it's important to note that when a doctor googles your symptoms, they a) use their education to filter out false-positives that a lay-person might not, and b) don't have an agenda. Meaning, they're looking at the results objectively, whereas I might downplay or over-emphasize certain symptoms when googling my own condition because I have a deeper emotional stake in the outcome. In other words: Please don't think that, because medical professionals use the internet to research your conditions, you can justify cutting out them out of the equation. Also, it's lupus."
Well, this one had a twist ending! But, it's true. A doctor's ability to take their emotions out of the picture makes a huge difference.
There's no doubt about it, physicians use Google, too. But, this doesn't mean that you should use the internet as your doctor and forgo actual medical care. Be smart and safe!
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