We all do it—head online with medical questions. Here’s how to surf in a healthy, helpful way.
Posted in , Jun 9, 2017
I recently needed to have a medical test. It came back negative, which was what the doctor expected. But between my appointment and the “I have good news” phone call was a lot of waiting…and, if I’m honest, way too much engagement with the body of medical (and “medical”) websites referred to collectively as “Dr. Google.”
The internet is a boundless resource, but that can work against us if we ask it broad questions with potentially terrifying answers. As I worked to navigate the recent blip on my personal health screen, I learned some helpful parameters for the next time I log on.
1. Only Ask Questions That Have Answers
I once had a doctor who distinguished between “information” and “useful information.” This is such a helpful framework for any medical information-gathering, especially in the online context. For example, asking how long a procedure typically takes is useful information. Asking whether you are going to die of a hypothetically diagnosed disease is not.
2. Keep Anecdotes in Their Place
There are numerous websites where patients record their experiences with various treatments, tests and procedures. If you choose to connect with these sites, please remember this—the great majority of people who share their stories have unusual stories to share. There is no way to know how many people went through your medical scenario with minimal issues, then just got back to living their lives. Also, patient stories are anonymous in every way—the storyteller’s lifestyle, overall health and pain sensitivity may be radically different from yours. Don’t let someone else’s experience define your expectation for your own health.
3. Source Your Sites
I try to limit my medical information gathering to a few key websites, like Mayo Clinic and Web MD. Whichever sites you consult, be aware of the type of content you are reading. If it says “Sponsored” anywhere on the page, the page is part of an advertisement campaign and should be read within that context. If you are reading a doctor’s website, you are getting his perspective on an issue, but not necessarily the definitive answer.
4. Use Dr. Google as a Starting Point
The healthiest way to use Dr. Google, in my view, is as a tool to educate myself enough to make me a more informed patient. I got a lot more out of a pre-procedure phone call with my doctor because I was conversant in the language of the test I was about to have. Speaking with her, I found out I was mistaken on some fronts, correct on others. In other words, Dr. Google will treat you best when you have a trusted real-life doctor who knows your body, your health and is expert in her field.
5. Know When to Step Away
If you are feeling more, not less anxiety the more you click and read, it’s time to step away from the screen. Practice anxiety management strategies like deep breathing, talks with a trusted friend or counselor, and time doing activities you love to keep your worry to a minimum during the challenging waiting days.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader