Google but be frugal

What do you do when you have a fever, headache, or an itchy rash? Gone are the days when you’d first check with a doctor. The Parsi in each of us will search for free medical advice on Google. However, be prepared for mistaking your allergic reaction for an STD, or vice versa. Doctors who no longer have patients to treat thanks to Google are designing the ‘symptom search’ feature on Google. The unfortunate or fortunate part is that it can’t clear up that rash for you… yet; who knows, in a couple of years, you might be able to type in your symptoms and then 3D print the cream that’ll zap your itch too!

We’ve been trusting Google to provide all the complex answers to our medical symptoms for a long time now. With all of this technology and freely available digital information, Google is changing the way doctors practice medicine and consult patients. Soon, not too far in the future, you will be able to pee on a stick and plug it into the computer, and Google might not only be able to tell you if you are pregnant but also who the father of the child is and what the child’s IQ and EQ is likely to be.


‘Please do not confuse your Google search for my medical degree’ or ‘Patients will be charged extra for annoying the doctor with self-diagnosis obtained from the Internet’ are signs that some doctors display outside their clinics, once considered holy shrines where the truth would be revealed to desperate patients seeking a solution to their morbid problems. Now, we have to be careful if our diagnosis matches that of the patient—lest Google proves us wrong.


All those years of travelling in jam-packed local trains to medical school and studying under lamp posts reading voluminous textbooks borrowed from libraries are now in vain, because exactly at the same time (as when I was in medical school), somewhere near the sun-kissed beaches of California, Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided to take over the World Wide Web by inventing Google. Though it is widely known that Google was founded by two men, I’m pretty sure Google is a woman—who else can know everything! Further, I’m pretty sure that Google is a Parsi woman: who else can know everything and present it to you with so much charm that you come back to her time and time again?


In today’s day and age, there isn’t a single doctor who hasn’t seen a ‘cyberchondriac’ patient arrive at his/her clinic with a voluminous stack of printouts from the Internet, suggesting a whirlwind of diagnoses. The self-interpretation of one’s symptoms from the start of Internet research until you actually get to a doctor can have adverse events on one’s well-being. You might have simple indigestion, but Dr. Google might make it seem like you’re having a heart attack. Googling your symptoms when you’re not feeling well is the quickest way to convince yourself that you’re dying.


The question you’re most likely asking right this minute is, “To Google or not to Google?” Google is inevitably going to be part of our everyday lives because it is convenient, accessible, and extremely powerful. Not only are our patients using Google, but doctors and medical students also are increasingly incorporating this tool into routine medical practice. With the billowing of medical information that is emanating from all sides and the presence of super-specializations in every field, we are all focused on learning more and more about less and less. Unfortunately, our brain—a supercomputer despite being utilised at only 5% (though, being a neurosurgeon, I can tell you there is no accurate way of quantifying that statistic)—is not able to retain such vast swathes of information and therefore needs to rely constantly on Google.


The real difference is the level of background knowledge ‘medically trained’ Googlers have over some of our patients, which may guide their search strategy and how they utilize the available resources. Hence, it is not surprising that in a recent study, ‘medically trained’ users more frequently establish the correct diagnosis using Google compared with their ‘less informed’ counterparts (50–60% compared with 22%). But what use is that number if you are likely to mistake a brain tumour for a migraine more than half the time?


With Google, you can go from having a mild headache to terminal cancer in three clicks, think that your simple cough is TB, or mistake your palpating femoral pulse for your unborn child’s heartbeat. Surprisingly, in a survey conducted some time ago, the most frequent misdiagnosis by Dr. Google was breast cancer, resulting in unpleasant emotional side effects in the women before they even visited a physician.


Though it is always better to go to a doctor to begin with, will a time come when we consider suing Google because they thought we had severe depression when all it was on our part was eagerness to eat an entire bottle of Nutella? And as parents, if you Google your children’s symptoms online, let me assure you that they don’t have behavioural disorders—they’re simply being brats!


Medical professionals need to embrace the phenomenon of patients googling their diagnoses. There are certain sites that have credible information and we need to direct our patients to those resources to be able to get a comprehensive understanding of their ‘real’ illness and not the one they have self-diagnosed themselves with. But be careful the next time you check your symptoms on the Internet—you might think you’re already dead.


A day will soon come, when everybody will own their own customised robot, like they do their smart phones. A robot who will not only diagnose your medical problems but also treat it with digital medicine.  A robot that will monitor your diet, exercise and cognitive activity and prescribe video games for autism and Alzheimer’s.  A robot that will ensure you don’t need humans in your life anymore.


Sigh !