Using Google to Diagnose…A Physician’s Worst Nightmare

I am pulling up to my animal hospital at 7:53am and see a panicked looking man with his “very happy” dog standing outside our doors.  I can tell by his expression and stance that he has been counting down the seconds until our doors open at 8am.  I proceed into the examination room to find a very happy, energetic healthy pup running around, and a very tired, nervous pet parent waiting for me.  He immediately shows me his phone with a video of his dog coughing, and tells me that he has been up all night with his dog and he is concerned his dog has bloat, a potentially serious and fatal illness in which the stomach fills up with air and twists upon itself.  He hesitantly admits he has been on Google all night and has not slept at all with worry and panic.  After reassuring him his pup is stable, and does not have bloat, I diagnose his dog with kennel cough, prescribe antibiotics for his dog, at least 3 hours of sleep for him, and off they go happy and feeling much more relaxed.

So how often does this exact scenario occur for me?  I would have to say at least 10 times per week.  I have had some clients admittedly label themselves “Google doctor” with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I spend much of my time at work examining my patients, explaining to my clients what is going on, recommending a treatment plan, and battling with Google. Ahhhhhhhhhhh my best friend Google!  I am going to have to venture to guess that, like me, every other physician (human and veterinarian alike) will get on their soap box if given the chance and rant about the frustrations with talking their clients off the “Google Cliff”, as I like to call it.

With the worldwide web and access to computers at every turn,  knowledge and information is at our fingertips.   The information is expanse and overwhelming ranging from medical articles, independent trials, studies on medications, blogs relaying opinions and experiences, articles written by professionals and doctors, articles written by parents, or reviews on products and medicine based upon personal experiences, to name a few.  But are we getting reliable, dependable information all the time? Is it information that we can use to make an educated decision on diagnosis and treatment for ourselves, our family members, and our pets?  Perhaps some of the information may help guide us in the proper direction, but much of it does not, and causes panic, anxiety, and decisions that are made based upon fear and inaccurate information.

I thought I would take this moment to discuss the dangers of using Google and other search engines for medical scenarios, how to properly use Google, and offer some reassurance that your physicians are a much better resource than Google.

Dangers of using Google to Diagnose or Treat

Anything can be written on Google, there are no guidelines, no criteria, and no rules.  Google is a place to vent about your toddler’s reflux and what you did to help the problem, write a review for a local business based on your own experience, or make drug dosing recommendations based upon what worked for you. Google and other search engines are open forums. Anyone can access or write information on the web on any topic. How do we know that what we are reading is the same thing as what your pet is experiencing or that it is sound advice?  Let’s begin with the problems and dangers associated with Google:

  • Wrong clinical signs– many times people perceive what their pet is experiencing differently than the actual clinical signs that they may be exhibiting and that can be reflected in their search for what to look for
  • Incorrect diagnosis-  This is probably the most common problem I see with Google searching.  If you are searching based upon your perception of what your pet is experiencing, the search will lead you to the wrong diagnosis.
  • Incorrect dosing of medications– as discussed, there are no rules for Google, so many of the medication dosing online is not accurate and based upon opinion or personal experience.
  • Mixing of medications– many times people will give medications based upon the advice of a Google search without knowing if there may be adverse reactions when combined with other medications their pet may already be taking.
  • Tendency to think worse case scenario– (this one is dedicated to my husband) I see this ALL THE TIME.  As practitioners, we are trained to remain calm, not panic, make decisions based upon objective facts, and leave emotion out of our plan to treat.  Understandably so, parents tend to be emotionally driven, panic with concern, and jump to the worst case scenario.  This is the very reason why I have a difficult time treating my own pets. When people think worst case scenario, they base their searches on that, and diagnose incorrectly.
  • Stress to yourself and to your loved ones– unnecessary panic and stress diagnosing your pets with serious conditions as discussed in the opening of this article.
  • Harm to your pets, loved ones, or yourself– I have seen this mistake over and over again.  Obviously when self diagnosing and treating based upon possible inaccurate information, we can cause great harm to our pets.

So what’s the solution?  The reality is, everyone uses Google, it’s only gaining more steam, and it’s just not reasonable to expect that people are not going to jump on the computer to see if they can figure out what’s going on.  The following are ways to utilize search engine options that are safer for you and your pets.

Tips on the Right Way to Use Google

  • Make sure the information you are reading is validated and comes from a sound source.  Check if there are footnotes.
  • Have your practioner recommend websites to refer to for general health questions.
  • Before treating or attempting to treat your pet, yourself, or a family member, seek the guidance and advice from your veterinarian or physician.
  • Develop a trust and strong relationship with your physician and feel confident in their experiences and expertise.
  • Do not hesitate to print information you find on the internet and ask your physician about it.
  • Know how to assess for an emergency.  There are clinical signs that I teach my clients to look for determine if their pet is stable and can wait to be seen by a doctor.  If you have an emergency, always seek the help of a professional immediately.

Speak with your Physician

I love motivated, passionate, and dedicated pet parents.  I tell my clients all the time that they know their pets the best and I trust in what they are telling me.  I never want to discourage my clients from being concerned and involved in the care of their pets. I believe there is a way to work as a team to properly diagnose and treat their pets by listening to their concerns, understanding how they feel, and then using my education and objective opinion to make an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment plan. Treating your pet based upon information you find on the internet can be very harmful.  It is imperative that you feel comfortable with your doctor and trust that they are choosing the correct treatment for your pet.  I hope this article was helpful! See you next week!

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