Paging Dr. Google

Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

Anyone with an internet connection has been there before. You don't feel well, so you take to WebMD or Google with your symptoms. The diagnosis could be as simple as stress or a cold, but scroll down far enough and you'll start seeing a brain tumor, radiation sickness and even plague as a possible culprit.

For the those in the healthcare profession the issue spreads beyond personal use of these medical websites, to the families of patients and even the patients themselves. You have the training and experience to know best, right? No way a website algorithm could beat you at what you do every day.

That's the issue at the core of a recent opinion feature in the New York Times. Four experts square off on the use of medical websites, and whether they can help keep patients engaged in their care or run the risk of misinforming them about serious medical conditions (and annoy their caregivers in the process).

Some side with the patient, saying the websites can help make patients better informed and able to weigh in on their treatment decisions. Others advise patients to take a more hands-off approach and trust their years of experience and study.

“Medical websites are like Magic 8 Balls: several clicks or shakes eventually provide a desirable answer,” said Kevin Noble Maillard, a law professor at Syracuse University and debater in the NYT's feature. “There are enough sites out there that investigation will deliver at least one preferred diagnosis. Who needs medical school and residencies when Google can tell us exactly what we want to hear?”

While those in the long-term care sector aren't as likely to encounter the double-edged sword of patients using medical websites on the diagnosis side (like this colorful anecdote from one physician on a patient's decision to conduct a DIY stool transplant), it's important to have a game plan — or at least some advice — in place for a resident or family who comes to you with a diagnosis they found online.

And it's likely someone will, if they haven't already. One of the physicians who sounded off in the NYT piece conducted a survey that found more than 90% of his patients had searched the internet for information on their conditions. That information is useful, he said, but isn't nuanced or personalized enough to help people (or their healthcare providers) make fully informed decisions.

Between Nursing Home Compare, Yelp reviews and social media posts, providers already have a lot on their plates when it comes to information residents' families can pull up online.

But being prepared for the occasional “Well WebMD said …” from a resident or their family can help providers bridge the gap between disgruntled but well-meaning keyboard warrior and someone who is genuinely interested in participating in their healthcare … even if they are a little misguided.

Maillard said it best in his section of the NYT op-ed: “The internet, among other things, is perfect for medical neuroses. But while self diagnosis may soothe, agitate or confirm, it doesn't treat.”

That's your job, so own it — and know when to tell Dr. Google to step aside and let you work.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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