The Dr. Is In: Dr. Google – The Pros and Cons of Internet Medicine

The Dr. Is In: Dr. Google – The Pros and Cons of Internet Medicine

As more people turn to web sources and social media for health information, parsing out the disinformation from the viable and reliable information available becomes increasingly challenging. Dr. Jahn shares tips on how to use Internet sources wisely for your vocal health.

For an increasing number of Americans, the Internet has become the source of medical advice. This is in keeping with the general trend, which is to turn to the Internet for information, whether news or fact checking. There are endless websites that deal with every medical condition, usually offering a remedy that often is “the latest” or something “your doctor doesn’t want you to know.” And at the end of the message comes the pitch for the latest snake oil which will cure your ills.

The globally shared COVID experience has reinforced this trend. Early on, visiting doctors was difficult, and many had to fend for themselves in managing medical problems. The subsequent popularity of telemedicine further reinforced the idea that you don’t need to see a doctor, just turn on your computer. And as competing news programs reinforce the politicization of issues that should be beyond politics, such as medical management of COVID or global warming, a destructive element of distrust has infected the view that many hold regarding medical research and expertise. For these and probably other reasons, an unprecedented number of patients look to the web for medical advice and self-administered medical care. 

However, the web also offers many advantages when it comes to informed health management. In the next few paragraphs, I want to share with you some thoughts on how the Internet can be a part of your health care.

But first, consider the fact that many fields of medicine are constantly advancing at an unprecedented rate. This means that as research and clinical trials reveal new information, much of what was accepted in the past is discarded, replaced by these discoveries. Medical facts are not written in stone but are simply our current best understanding, and much of what is true today may be replaced tomorrow as new facts come to light. 

I emphasize this to explain why what an expert (such as Dr. Fauci) may have stated last year may have been superseded by information that is new and different this year. To characterize these updates as evidence of disinformation or some sort of plot is to apply a toxic political slant to advancing science—it simply doesn’t belong here. Both illnesses and their management continue to evolve and they follow no predetermined rules.

The Internet has become a vast repository of information, both good and bad. There are websites that inform, with no aim beyond sharing information on specific medical problems. There are others that sell services and products and take advantage of the reader’s curiosity or anxiety. Such sites are no better than TV ads featuring actors wearing white coats with stethoscopes draped around their necks. If one uncritically accepts all the information out there, there seems to be a cure for every illness, providing you just buy the right chewable tablet.

Here are some recommendations for navigating the medical web. First, do not be enticed by unreasonable promises. There is no rare herb in the Amazon that will cure your problem in 8 weeks. Celebrities do not know better just by virtue of their image. However you define “good health,” it requires vigilant eating and exercise, and no magic pill will circumvent that. Keep in mind also that unless a remedy has been scientifically analyzed, you cannot be sure what you are taking and whether it is helpful, harmless, or harmful.

Here is how to use the medical web. If you have been diagnosed with a problem, inform yourself about that condition using government websites (like NIH and CDC), or websites from major medical institutions (such as Johns Hopkins and Mayo Clinic). And read several sources to see if there is a consensus! It is like getting a second (or third) opinion online. 

You can use the same method to look up symptoms and remedies. When it comes to different treatments, we all have an aversion to the scalpel and a bias toward solutions that seem simpler or less invasive, and websites will appeal to this. But every treatment has a potential negative side, whether medications or laser or “gamma knife.” When you gather information, always look past the words and consider more sobering topics such as side effects and complications. You know, the tiny print on the bottom of the TV screen that you are not meant to read!

Finally, if you are scientifically inclined and want to take a deep dive into a medical topic, whether disease or treatment, I recommend Google Scholar, a free website that gives you access to medical journal articles on every conceivable subject. Although written for doctors, many of these articles (especially the conclusions) are readable and will give you the latest on your medical problem. 

And once all your research is complete, you will be in an excellent position to discuss and understand your medical concerns with your physician. Most of us welcome a well informed patient who can actively participate in their medical decisions.

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is the noted author of Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website