The act of using a doctor who doesn’t have a degree in medicine is no new concept. Nor is self-prescription for your various ailments. LA rockers Mötley Crüe knew this when, in 1989, they belted out their most successful banger, "Dr. Feelgood".
“Jigsaw Jimmy he's runnin' a gang
But I hear he's doin' okay;
Got a cozy little job sells the Mexican mob
Packages of candy cane.
He's the one they call Dr. Feelgood
He's the one that makes ya feel alright
He's the one they call Dr. Feelgood”
When these aforementioned LA rockers sang the above, now-infamous lyrics, they were of course singing about the greatest social evil known to mankind at the time: drugs.
At least that’s how the US Government saw things.
The “War on Drugs” was then in its 18th year with little to no signs of a policy shift on the horizon, while more and more Americans battled addiction, including the members of the band.
Today, we have statistics and newfound knowledge that proves the straw-man spectre of drugs is not as scary as we were always told, and we know that the metaphorical Dr. Feelgood is a more complex character than we once thought. However, another dodgy clinician has insidiously crept onto the scene and set up shop, and the outcomes of his methods of practice are yet to be seen in full.
We are speaking, of course, of Dr. Google.
Now, it’s important to start by saying that overall, the internet is not always a bad thing.
It has helped to provide innumerable advancements in medical science, brought education to the masses, and made remote operations possible in places where funding for surgeons is lacking. It’s also allowed this very platform to exist, helping people find doctors and real solutions for simple health complaints.
"The internet is a gold-mine of information but it can also be very confusing and overwhelming for someone without medical training"
Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now.
But with all that said, using the internet to self-diagnose is an alarming trend that has become evident to professionals in the medical industry, and it’s one that can have dire consequences for a multitude of reasons.
According to this study, there are two main ways that people use the internet to seek information about their health.
The first is to rush to online platforms to find potential causes for symptoms that a person might be experiencing. This is how hypochondriacs can quickly become convinced that a little gas or constipation is in fact stomach cancer and instantly go into panic mode for their future health.
This is achieved with no weight given to the very obvious fact that they haven’t even spoken to a doctor, let alone been given a diagnosis of anything (when, most likely, all they need is a good fart).
Using the internet to self-diagnose is an alarming trend...and it’s one that can have dire consequences for a multitude of reasons.
The second is to seek information from the internet about a condition that a doctor has discussed or diagnosed, which too can have a raft of negative consequences.
The practice is so rife that it has earned its own moniker: “cyberchondria”, where people earn self-awarded medical degrees from the University of Google, and misinformation has become a silent pandemic in and of itself.
So, what exactly are some of the dangers attached to using Dr. Google’s ostensibly insightful services? And where does the line get drawn between a helpful pool of information and a one-way ticket to Panictown?
Sydney-based General Practitioner Joanna Sharp points out that it's how an individual might disseminate information found online that matters: "The internet is a gold-mine of information but it can also be very confusing and overwhelming for someone without medical training and the ability to analyse the information they find.
"This is particularly so when they are already anxious about a medical concern and they feel unable to talk to anyone about it to normalise what is going on. As GPs we regularly help patients to find their way back to the likely diagnosis, reassuring them about those worst case scenarios and planning the best way forward."
The trend garnered international attention towards the end of last year after this research letter was published on JAMA (that’s the Journal of the American Medical Association), detailing the worrying rise of internet users seeking advice from Reddit regarding potential STIs. The story broke all around the world, with many not quite realising the extent to which some people go online to seek a diagnosis, instead of just getting their ass to a clinic and getting treatment.
Some were even posting photos of their possibly diseased genitals for all the world to see.
Surely the notion that your identity as the owner of some weeping sores or inflamed *whatever* is more damaging to your street cred than dropping your duds in front of a doctor while they take a peek and write you a script?
Is posting a photo of your diseased penis online not the ultimate self-own? Or have we just become so afraid of human-to-human contact that we avoid it at all costs, even when that’s the best way to fix a problem that really needs addressing?
Dr. Sharp is quick to point out the obvious flaws in using Reddit: "Asking a group of reddit subscribers a question about something to do with your health can be fraught.
"Depending on the particular forum it can be very much like an echo chamber amplifying your concerns and actually driving you further away from finding answers and solutions. You are also getting completely unaccredited advice from people who seldom have any medical knowledge and their suggestions can be harmful.
"Posting pictures is also a confidentiality issue."
With all that said, we all know that Google is a handy place when it’s 2am and you want to know the best way to deal with a cold sore. We also know that no matter what we say here, you’re going to use it, so here is a list of things to remember when you’re consulting the internet, before you get too carried away and start joining online support groups for terminal sufferers of Stickittodamaneosis.
For almost everything you search, Google will push sponsored results to the top. That means health issues as well as those weird fashion suggestions from wish.com. As such, it’s important to note that sponsored results might not have your best interests at heart.
This is not necessarily the case all of the time, but it’s a good idea to consider why you are seeing the results you are seeing before you click away and end up buying herbal supplements from Bangladesh to treat the vapours.
- Australia has a great primary health system with heaps of helpful and accurate information available on government websites like this one here. We also have some pretty great hospitals and universities that publicly publish information about these exact topics, and as such, these are probably the best places to start. Look for a .gov web address.
- Wikipedia is written with community-sourced content, meaning there are lots of contributors and no shortage of spurious sources. As such, it can be a contradictory and factually sparse place to look in terms of helpful health advice. While it’s an excellent font of knowledge almost every other time, when it comes to your health you are much better off leaving it to the professionals, and avoiding Wikipedia altogether.
- Lastly, and arguably more importantly, remember that forums like Reddit, and the comments section below articles, no matter how well-written, convincing or upvoted, are anecdotal.
It’s not to rubbish the idea that online forums can have great implications for health too; countless people have found global support networks for their respective illnesses via the internet, and there is a lot to be said for sharing personal stories to help the healing process for people who are genuinely suffering from a particular condition.
But it simply isn’t good enough as a diagnostic tool, especially if you’re not a doctor. Online comments can also skew to the negative and paint a dour picture when collated. That’s something you definitely want to avoid if you’re having concerns about your health or wellbeing.
You could argue that all of this goes without saying, but it’s commonly said that the sad truth about commonsense is that it isn’t very common.
People want convenience and look for shortcuts whenever they can, and the internet is the ultimate provider of convenience.
If humans had better regard for their safety and wellbeing we wouldn’t have the Darwin Awards, but short of the occasional entertaining tweet of somebody walking into a plate glass sliding door that refuses to open, there is no positive outcome from people behaving stupid. And never is this truer than in the sense of looking after one’s own health.
Dr. Feelgood may still be around, but he’s hung up his stethoscope and gone mainstream – from selling his potent powders beneath LA overpasses and advertising his wares through the lyrics of a few emaciated musos, to dotcom cannabusinesses, and dispensaries that have more doctors and lawyers on their client lists than punks and drummers.
Google is the new dangerous doc on the block, and whether you’re nursing a dull ache or living with a terminal illness, his pernicious prescriptions will not make you feel alright.