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Dr. Bert Mandelbaum for U.S. News & World Report: The Trouble With Paging 'Dr. Google'


NEARLY EVERY internet-using adult has done it at least once. You come down with a symptom or two you may have never experienced before, and you head straight to a search engine for information on what your "condition" could possibly be. Dependent solely upon the words you searched, you may have sent yourself spiraling into a black hole of worry, prompting you to call your doctor with an urgent need to be seen.

While I am all for keeping your health front and center, there is unfortunately no medical degree required to publish seemingly authoritative "medical information" to a plethora of websites. And some of those websites even appear legitimate. Education, appropriate and accurate knowledge transfer are essential tools to becoming an empowered patient, but we doctors see too many terrified patients in our exam rooms because they allowed a search engine to play doctor with their psyches before giving the real-life authorities a chance to evaluate and then provide a diagnosis. In order for the internet to be the most useful tool it can be for patients – a tool that works for rather than against you and the health care provider you trust – there are some factors that you should keep in mind to help protect yourself from wrong information. And no, telling you to stay away from the internet isn't one of them.

First, make sure you seek information from reputable sources. When researching a condition or symptom, be sure to start with the medical authority on that condition. For example, if it's a concern you have about your knees, hips or other joints, begin with a credible source like the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. The medical information provided on these websites is typically written by the physician specialists who are experienced in evaluating, diagnosing and treating these conditions and their content is also reviewed and vetted by peer editors who are also authorities in the field. If you're researching a heart symptom, start with the American Heart Association. A bladder issue? The American Urological Association. You get the point: Go to the expert medical advisory authority first. Websites that contain chatrooms or forums can be plenty useful for people who have already been diagnosed with a condition to engage with their peers, but they aren't a starting place for someone who hasn't yet been diagnosed. Some sites like these can cause significant worry and frequently contain misinformation. Stick with the experts.

Even when you do find credible information online, it's virtually useless in the absence of evaluation and diagnosis from a physician expert. In some cases, for example, the symptoms you experienceand research on the internet may be caused by another condition, not the one the search engine picked up and showed you. In other cases, the disease you suspect you might be suffering from might not be nearly as severe or life-threatening as what the internet has led you to believe. In a nutshell, you must be able to honestly discuss your symptoms and concerns with a medical expert you trust. Let them know about the information you found online and provide them with the website sources where you found it. Ask all of the questions you have. A good doctor will listen, walk you step-by-step through his or her evaluation and will likely assuage your fears and anxiety in the process. Here's the test: If you step out of the exam room feeling more settled than anxious, that's an excellent sign.

Now, it's entirely untrue that every physician's assessment and recommendations are 100-percent perfect, all of the time. We're human, too, just like you. But if you've researched your symptoms via reputable online sources and shared those findings with a health care provider only to walk out of his or her office feeling more anxious, or worse, like your concerns weren't even considered, then it could be time to look for a second opinion. This isn't to say that the original doctor is "wrong." Indeed, it has more to do with how you feel about the interaction. Most doctors who've been in medicine a while have experienced this. Though my assessment and treatment recommendations may be similar to those of the original physician you met with, you might just feel better about your connection with me. That's a good thing, and it shouldn't be minimized. In fact, patients are usually more likely to follow the course of treatment recommended by a doctor when those treatment recommendations are made by a doctor they trust. Internet research aside, your gut instincts are vital. Be sure to listen to them.

And yes, I'm aware of the highly publicized stories about people who researched their symptoms online and ended up discovering that they had a rare, life-threatening disorder. But I can say from experience that there are many more who've done the same thing only to fall prey to the bad actors who have convinced them they have a terrible "condition" that can be cured with some magic treatment that they can just click and "add to cart." At best, those magic treatments do no harm. At worst, they can result in death. The risk just isn't worth it. Page Dr. Search Engine if you want to. But then, please make an appointment to see a real, live medical expert or two as soon as you can. These are the real authorities who will provide you with the most accurate information, and who can set you on the right path to treatment when it's necessary.

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