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Consulting Dr Google

People respond in many different ways when they feel unwell or they think they are developing a medical problem. An obvious way is to go to a doctor or to a hospital Emergency Department. Another way is to look for information on the Internet. As Google is the most commonly used Internet search engine, an online search is often referred to as “consulting ‘Dr Google.’”


More than two trillion Google searches were done in 2016, and about 5% of those searches were on issues concerning health. This makes health the second most common subject area for Google searches.


Many people search for information on the Internet before they see their general practitioner. It has been reported that patients find discussing the information they find online with a doctor helps the relationship between patient and doctor, particularly when the doctor is prepared to discuss the information with them. However, if the patient trusts the Internet-derived information more than the doctor’s advice it can lead to conflict.


An article published in the Medical Journal of Australia in October 2018 describes a study of the Internet search habits of people attending hospital Emergency Departments and how this affected the doctor/patient relationship.


Over 1,000 patients attending Emergency Departments at two large Melbourne hospitals were considered for inclusion in the study. The participating hospitals were Austin Health and St Vincent’s Hospital. In the 2016-17 financial years these Emergency Departments had 84,000 and 46,000 patients respectively.


These were people who had already had a consultation with a clinician. Some were excluded because they were assessed by the research to be cognitively impaired. They may have been too drunk or under the influence of drugs, too unwell or had psychiatric problems. Of those who were approached, some were excluded because of difficulty communicating with the researcher or because of being unable to read or write. Some declined to take part.


In total, 400 people took part in the survey. Just over half had not done Internet searches for health-related information; they didn’t do the full survey but gave demographic information for comparison.


196 of the patients reported that they regularly searched the Internet for health-related information and 139 had researched the problem that brought them to the Emergency Department.


Patients from older age groups were less likely to search the Internet for health-related information. 58% of searches were made by people aged between 18 and 29 while only 14% of searches were made by people aged over 60.


People who said they had good e-health literacy were more likely to be searchers. This is an assessment by the patient of their ability to understand health related Internet information.

Patients who had done an Internet search before going to the Emergency Department generally thought that it helped the doctor/patient relationship. They reported that they were better able to ask informed questions, communicate effectively and understand what the health provider was saying. For most, doing their own research didn’t make them less likely to trust their diagnosis and treatment. It didn’t make them less likely to comply with their treatment plan. Some patients reported that their online research made them more anxious.


One of the problems with using information from the Internet is distinguishing between good and bad information. The Federal Government’s Department of Health website has mostly information about government programs and responses on its website but it also has links to Australian and international healthy organisations. Many of these external sites will have useful and reliable information. The Department of Health’s website can be accessed at http://www.health.gov.au


The National Heart Foundation of Australia has good information about many heart conditions on its website. They can be found at www.heartfoundation.com.au


National Prescribing Service is a government-funded non-profit organisation. It provides information about taking medications including the consumer information sheets for medicines. Their site can be found at https://www.nps.org.au/


Better Health Channel is a site operated by the Victorian Government. It has very good fact sheets about a range of different medical issues. They can be found at www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au


ABC Radio National “The Health Report” has transcripts of broadcasts from ABC Radio National. Often information is provided about recent research, but this should be used as education rather than as personal medical advice. The transcripts can be found at www.abc.net.au/rn/healthreport/


Heart UK is a British charity aimed at preventing deaths caused by high cholesterol. They have great fact sheets, particularly about food. Their site can be found at http://heartuk.org.uk


U.S News and World Report is an American website that contains information about various health conditions. You do require a subscription to access the full articles however a brief over of the articles is available without subscription. You can find them http://health.usnews.com/


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


“Consulting Dr Google” was written by David McAndrew, President of Heart Support Australia’s Perth Metropolitan Branch. The piece was based on an article “Dr Google in the ED: searching for online health information by adult emergency department patients” which was published in the Medical Journal of Australia. The websites that appear in the article are suggested by David and are sites that he and his branch members have found useful over the years. “Consulting Dr Google” and the website recommendations appeared in the Perth Branch’s December Newsletter.


If you live in Western Australia and are seeking support please don’t hesitate to contact us at Heart Support Australia National Office and we will gladly put you in contact with David and his branch.




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