‘Dr. Google’ and the emergence of cybercondria


Dr. Google has the largest practice ever known to humankind and he doesn’t even have a waiting room where you get a clipboard with a paper patient inventory form.

In B2B marketing we find that a disproportionate number of prospects make their decisions as a result of a search before they ever talk to a vendor, and healthcare appears to be no different. One early Pew study found that over 35% of Americans consult the internet before visiting a doctor. This number actually sounds very low to me.

Have a painful rash on your face that doesn’t look normal? Immediately go to Google images to compare with shingles!

Seeing “floaties” in your vision when you wake up in the morning? Go to Dr. Google to see if anyone else has experienced  optical migraines.

Dr. Google’s initial diagnosis is only the beginning. His patient engagement then migrates into the prescriptive stage, and eventually the treatment stage, with no real human interaction at all. Click on CVS.com and you’ll have your over-the-counter meds delivered same day without having to leave the house.

Much of this is done with no sense of the validity of the medical advice giver. As with many things in life, people look for the advice they want to get, not the advice they need.

In fact, technology has caused a whole new mental health issue called “cybercondria.” This in turn has caused a proportionate increase in requests for appointments.

Don’t get me wrong. Most healthcare providers feel that Dr. Google is a tremendous resource for initial research on an ailment. They also have mixed feelings about how the symptoms and treatment sites recommend to “see your physician.”

As we all know, the migration from “all you can eat” to value-based healthcare delivery has put tremendous pressure on physicians and hospitals to reduce unnecessary visits and treatment. In addition, anyone who has tried to find a general practitioner knows that the wait to get an office visit can run months if you’re lucky enough to find the practitioner in the first place. For this reason, Dr. Google is critical in the process of finding his own replacement!

So where’s the balance between the digital doctor and the physical one?

While doctors are very leery about the random advice patients get from the internet, they also see that people who gather data on their own in advance can bring some advantages to patient engagement. If the care provider finds that the data did come from a reliable provider online, the conversation can be more quickly shifted to questions about the treatment or the procedure rather than starting from scratch with the description of the ailment.

In a major shift, the UK’s NHS has actually reversed its overcautious approach to online health tips and actually started encouraging patients to check online as part of their “Three before GP” program. According to the NHS, the demand for appointments during the winter months gets so high that if just five percent of people did not visit their GP, it would save 50,000 appointments. Their statistics show that over a quarter of onsite appointments are unnecessary. So essentially, consult with Dr. Google or your pharmacist before scheduling an in-office appointment!

Google in Australia has tried to raise the safety net on ailment and treatment accuracy by highlighting 900 commonly searched-for health conditions in the results. According to Google, “Each fact has been checked by a panel of at least ten medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.”

This phenomenon has the potential of coming full circle, according to renowned patient engagement expert Dr. Eric Topol. In his book, The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands,”  Topol predicts that the digitization of human beings and the use of sophisticated health apps on their mobile (medical device) phones will make a parody out of the old saying, “Doctor knows best.”

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