How to Deal With Patients Googling It

Julie Shenkman
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In the age of the Internet, healthcare professionals are faced with a problem that was unknown in decades past: online self diagnosis. Because most patients have easy access to Google and online doctor services, they are able to research symptoms and potential causes. In many cases, the result is more harmful than helpful, leaving healthcare workers to pick up the pieces. By finding strategies to deal with panicked patients and prevent disastrous online searches, you can improve the lives of your clients and reduce wasted time.


Many patients head to the Internet to research their healthcare issues because it is faster and cheaper than seeing a doctor. Whether they are using online doctor websites or relying on Google, the chances of misdiagnosis are high. Numerous diseases can cause the same symptoms, making it easy to come to the wrong conclusion. As a result, patients may experience extreme feelings of stress or panic. In some cases, they may feel that the issue is serious enough to merit a trip to the emergency room. According to The New York Times, emergency room visits contribute to high healthcare costs in the United States.


Easy access to Google and online doctor websites can contribute to cyberchondria, a condition where hypochondria is exacerbated by online symptom searches. When patients research their symptoms online, they become convinced that they have a number of diseases or conditions. In most cases, the patients are not actually suffering from serious diseases. When—and if—a patient visits a healthcare professional, the doctor must spend a great deal of time dispelling concerns and calming the person down. As a result, the doctor has less time to spend on other patients.


For doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers, it can be difficult to deal with patients who insist on self-diagnosing imaginary illnesses. Many professionals encourage their patients to stay educated and motivated to take care of their health, so they shy away from discouraging online research. In many cases, the best solution is to provide a list of reputable online healthcare resources and online doctor sites. In addition, you can encourage patients to go the ask-physician-then-panic route. By adding an extra step in the process, you can head off a full-scale panic.


If your healthcare business has the resources, it is possible to create an online resource library for patients as an alternative to websites with questionable content. In addition, you can provide online doctor services or a simple ask physician service where patients can submit quick questions. By making the information available to the public, you can address other people with similar concerns.


Google and other search engines aren't going anywhere; if anything, they will become an even greater part of everyday life. By helping your patients find safe alternatives to online doctor websites and encouraging them to check in with a professional, you can help them be their own healthcare advocates without compromising safety.


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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Thanks for the great comments.@Lisa - an interesting way to cope with this is to print out information from websites that give a more accurate view of the benefits of vaccines and from sites that debunk the myth that vaccines are linked to autism. Since you know that the patients trust what they read on the Internet as much as they trust you, give them Internet facts.@julie - it is important for patients to educate themselves. Perhaps health care professionals can use their patient's need to feel in control of their treatment to their advantage by allowing them to have some say in their care.
  • Lisa M
    Lisa M
    A very good article!  I've had these experiences with patients searching online, and getting very bad information re:childhood vaccines, as just one example.  They don't know which sites are valid or whom to believe and I've spent much time trying to dispel myths, attempting to calm now-paranoid parents!
  • julie p
    julie p
    I agree. My experience is that there are many symptoms that look alike but as a qualified professional, they are usually aware of why it's not what you think it might be. It's important to educate ourselves and not panic, and ask for help sooner rather than later, and right away if something happening is unfamiliar and growing steadily worse. J.

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