Is Google the New Family Doc?

by Debbie Myers (@debamyers)

Back in the day, we used to rely on family, friends and old wives tales to diagnose medical conditions.

My sons-in-law married into a family that believes the primary care physician is part of the family. It’s commonly advised that you should visit this family physician every year or so if you need their expertise to help figure out what ails you. While respectful of their mother-in law’s advice, these young men have informed me that they can pretty much figure out what our family doc might have to say by checking in first with “cousin” Google. It seems many folks agree with my sons-in-law.

We’ve known for some time that consumers are not afraid of using the Internet to find health information. In fact, nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults have looked online for health information this past year. We now know that consumers are also turning to the Internet for diagnosis – either as a first stop before going to the doctor, or as an online second opinion. According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, more than one-third of U.S. adults have turned to the Internet to diagnose medical conditions for themselves or others.

When medical professionals hear data like this they get nervous that consumers are replacing “Dr. Welby” with “Dr. Google.” But, I think a deeper look into the research tells a different story.

According to the Pew study, nearly half of those looking for a diagnosis online said the information led them to want to seek the attention of a medical professional. And of those, 41 percent said that their clinician confirmed their findings, which tells me the information people are finding is not far off-target. The survey also showed that, when it comes to serious illness, 70 percent of U.S. adults received information, care, or support from a doctor or other health care professional.  So while referring to the Internet may not always be more reliable, your search will likely take you to trusted sources like WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Medline Plus, and

The most important lesson for the medical profession is to be online where consumers are. Some health systems have done this well, such as Nemours, which created, one of the most frequented sites for information on children’s health. With the introduction of electronic medical systems, some physicians are embracing email to answer basic questions. I recently emailed my doctor with questions about a new medicine I was taking, and she quickly responded with the answers to my questions. She even sent me a link to some helpful resources. There was another time when I emailed with a more complex question. Instead, my doctor asked me to give her a direct call to discuss.

I appreciate that my doctor is trying to achieve a balance between being available online for general health information and knowing when it’s time to step away from the computer and get face-to-face. We as healthcare consumers need to be mindful of doing the same.

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