More than half of Canadians use ‘doctor Google’ to self-diagnose

St. Michael’s Hospital and its next door neighbour Ryerson University announced a 20-year partnership in collaborating on projects in biomedical science and technology. polarica/E+

TORONTO – More than half of Canadians recently polled about their tendencies to self-diagnose an ailment with a Google search said they had researched a health-related issue in the past month.

According to some doctors, that’s good news, even if patients sometimes wildly misdiagnose themselves.

As part of its regular online polling with Internet users in 24 countries, Ipsos asked more than 1,000 Canadians whether they had recently used the web to research something related to their health.

About 55 per cent said they had, which was higher than the global average of 48 per cent. Nearly two-thirds of the Canadian female respondents said they did some Googling about their health in the past month, while 45 per cent of the men said the same.

The youngest respondents, ages 35 and under, were also found to be more reliant on the web for health information, with 58 per cent saying that had recently launched a medical search, compared to just more than half of the respondents over 35.

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Health-care professionals have come to expect that the majority of the patients they see will have done some online research into what might be happening with their bodies, said Dr. David Esho, a staff family physician with Toronto’s Western Hospital.

“Among my colleagues we would all definitely say that the Internet is becoming more important in terms of our patients seeking medical information and how it colours the interaction we have with our patients as well,” said Esho, adding that he considers his patients “well informed” most of the time.

“When they come in and they quote something that I’m not entirely sure is consistent with what we commonly accept in medical practice then I use that as an opportunity for us to both go on the website and look. But I’d say the majority of people do have good sourced information.”

While occasionally he’ll hear that a patient has delayed seeking treatment based on research they did online, Esho said that more often than not their Googling triggers a prompt visit to see a doctor.

“They’ll Google something and they think they have this interesting or rare medical condition based on a constellation of symptoms. And then they’ll come in asking for specific treatments or tests because they think they have some strange viral fever that’s only found in Africa,” he said.

“One thing I ask them to do is look at who is hosting the website, so is it something that has been affiliated with a known society like the Canadian Diabetes Society or the Mayo Clinic, for example. Is it something that seems to be quoting research-based evidence or is it something that seems to be using anecdotal stories? Is there any bias in that source?”

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Dr. Kendall Ho, who works in Vancouver General Hospital’s emergency room, said he too deals with patients who are far off-base with their self-diagnoses, but he doesn’t mind.

“It’s not uncommon that a patient comes in thinking they have a certain disease and in fact we diagnosis them with the right disease, there’s nothing wrong with that and in fact I encourage (their online research) because that means the patient really wants to take care of themselves,” Ho said. “I don’t count them as mistakes.”

And he doesn’t blame patients who get stressed out by a new symptom and become convinced they have a terrible malady.

Most of the people he’s worked with have been there too.

“When people go through medical school there’s something called medical school student syndrome: every disease you study you think, ‘I have it,'” Ho said.

“The illness is just a pathological extension of our normal functions and so it’s easy for us to misinterpret information. I really appreciate the patients that are interested enough to look up their own information because that means they care about their own health and they want to actively take part in it. And in the medical literature that suggests the patient will have a better outcome.”

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