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A Second Opinion from Dr. Google


I've often suspected that if only the E.R. doctor who misdiagnosed me with indigestion had bothered to just Google my cardiac symptoms (chest pain, nausea, sweating and pain radiating down my left arm), he and Dr. Google would have almost immediately hit upon my correct diagnosis: myocardial infarction, or heart attack. But instead, he pronounced that I was 'in the right demographic' for acid reflux. I was sent home that day feeling horribly embarrassed for having made a fuss over nothing but a case of indigestion. As time went by, however, and my debilitating symptoms became truly unbearable, I turned to Dr. Google.

And that's why I forced myself, despite my embarrassment, to return to the E.R. ' but with the pronouncement of that E.R. doc still ringing in my ears:

'It is NOT your heart!'

Many physicians out there, however, are not happy when their patients consult Dr. Google to research troubling symptoms like mine.

A female heart patient from Wisconsin, for example, shared recently:

'When I first began discussing my condition with my doctor, he said he hadn't realized I was a doctor. I told him I'm not a doctor, but I am a very good researcher. He gave that small, insulting half-laugh that doctors reserve for this response and said that he wasn't sure he approved of patients doing research.

'I told him I had no inclination to apologize for it. I said that I knew he was interested in my health, but not nearly as interested as I am.

'It's his job, but it's my life.'

Dr. Stuart Foxman of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has written about doctors' reaction to the growing phenomenon of patients who are self-educated 'medical Googlers'. On his blog for physicians called' DocTalk, he cited a survey of physicians that found many docs rate the know-it-all Googler as somewhere between 'frustrating' and 'irritating'.

This study noted a number of doctors' concerns. ' Some patients used the information gleaned on their own for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. Some doctors believed that the information caused the patient unnecessary confusion and distress. Dr. Foxman explained:

All of these seem like legitimate concerns on the part of physicians. The highly curious and informed patients were sometimes perceived as 'challenging' with a tendency to test the knowledge of physicians. Some doctors felt that these patients were overly assertive, undermined their authority, and did not show sufficient trust in their health care provider.'

Consider, for example, Dr. Scott Haig's classic TIME magazine essay called 'When The Patient Is A Googler' - a scathingly arrogant attack that describes'  his Googling patients as:

. . . suspicious and distrustful, their pressured sentences bursting with misused, mispronounced words and half-baked ideas.'

Just a tad oversensitive to having his authority undermined, wouldn't you say?

The reality, of course, is that, despite doctors like Haig, patients are indeed consulting Dr. Google in growing numbers.'  According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 80% of us use the internet to 'prepare for or recover from' our doctor visits.

Well-known physician blogger Dr. Kevin Pho believes that it's time to stop debating whether or not patients should research their own symptoms.'  It's happening already, as he warns:

'The medical profession would be better served to handle this new reality.'

My heart sister Laura Haywood-Cory survived a heart attack at the age of 40, caused by Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. She recently explained her own need to seek information and support online in her essay on the Stanford School of Medicine blog, Scope:

'As a patient with a rare condition that most cardiologists have never encountered, I and others like me have had to become our own experts. And since our numbers are small, we aren't able to gather for support in person; we do it online.

It seems to me that the answer isn't to discourage people from seeking medical information from Dr. Google, but rather to teach people, starting in school, some critical thinking skills. How to sift the online wheat from the chaff and how to determine which sites have credible information, versus ones that are just selling the latest formula of snake oil.'

Dr. Michael Lowenstein, co-director of the California-based Waismann Institute, believes that the more educated patients are about their health, the better care they'll get. He also says patients need to be their own advocates in today's health care environment. For example:

'There are patients who educate themselves and go to reputable websites that have good information. It makes for an intelligent dialogue between doctor and patient about the medical condition and treatment options.'

Since we know that many patients are already inclined to go online and search for information, physicians should look at this as an opportunity to enhance their own websites, warns Erin Sharaf of Northeastern University.

'It's smart for medical practices to have a website and steer their patients to better resources. Refer them to other reputable external sites with links from your own website, so that patients know they are credible, respected and have accurate information. It's also important to both stay up to date with the medical literature as well as the lay press so you know what your patients are reading.

More Blog Posts by Carolyn Thomas

author bio

Carolyn Thomas is a heart attack survivor and a 2008 graduate of the annual WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She was also named by “Our Bodies Ourselves” of Boston in 2009 as one of 20 inductees from seven countries acknowledged as “Women’s Health Heroes” for community activism in promoting women’s health. This post originally appeared on her Heart Sisters blog. She also writes at The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics for the Easily Swayed and you can follow her on Twitter @HeartSisters or @TheEthicalNag.

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Comments on this post
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elli says
July 8, 2013 at 5:25 PM

Very good article. I would suggest everyone to get a second opinion just to be safe. I have used a second opinion service a few times and will continue to do so. For the time and price its well worth it. Very professional and saved me a bunch of money.Please watch this recently aired ABC News segment which addresses medical errors and emphasizes the importance of obtaining second opinions: