Avoid an Appointment with Dr. Google
Do you “doomscroll”? That word was coined to describe a habit many of us have developed over the past few years, obsessively clicking on links to bad news in our social media feeds or online news sites.
“The biology of our brains may play a role in that,” say researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Specific areas and cells in the brain become active when an individual is faced with the choice to learn or hide from information about an unwanted aversive event the individual likely has no power to prevent.”
We’re fretters by nature, they say, and doomscrolling could be making it worse! “People’s brains aren’t well equipped to deal with the information age,” said neuroscience professor Ilya Monosov, Ph.D. “People are constantly checking, checking, checking for news, and some of that checking is totally unhelpful. Our modern lifestyles could be resculpting the circuits in our brain that have evolved over millions of years to help us survive in an uncertain and ever-changing world.”
There’s no end to the bad news we can access if we choose to. And on a personal level, we might “doomscroll” our way into panic about own health! During the COVID-19 era, experts say people are even more likely than before to obsess about real or imagined ailments—and many are also self-diagnosing and listening to bad advice from unqualified sources.
In the old days, if we noticed a troubling rash, ache or digestive disturbance, we would most likely make an appointment with our doctor to have our symptoms checked out. Maybe we’d take our medical encyclopedia off the shelf and riffle through the common ailments described within.
But today, our diagnostic path can be quite different! Doctors wryly note that many patients head right to “Dr. Google.” And this can send them into a spiral of worry the medical pundits call “cyberchondria.” A few years ago, Microsoft even took note of the problem, noting that “the Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when the Web is employed as a diagnostic procedure.”
How can we avoid stumbling into this spiral of worry, and avoid bad information and self-diagnosis that could keep us from getting the medical help we need? Here are four things to remember before you consult online health resources:
Not all health content on the web is created equal. The internet is home to much reliable health information—and plenty of useless material, as well. A good rule is that if you would trust the source of the content in real life, the site is more likely to be trustworthy. Websites sponsored by government agencies, universities, hospitals, medical clinics, healthcare organizations and reputable companies are the most likely to offer good, up-to-date information.
Don’t rely on random searches. It’s tempting to start by doing a search of our symptoms, then clicking through the results. Remember, search terms may turn up just about anything! Unscrupulous companies might even game the search process to come out on top and try to sell us something. So don’t start with search terms. Instead, begin with websites of known experts (see the bottom of this post for a list).
Most forums, bulletin boards and social media pages are moderated by non-experts. Pew Research Center experts report that many people are eager to share their experiences of a particular disease or treatment—and many others are eager to read those accounts. Discussion boards, chat rooms and social media groups have created a global backyard fence, and it’s human nature to seek out these sites for emotional support and online companionship. But the medical information participants post is often wildly inaccurate. Rarely are these boards moderated by a qualified professional, and the sites often are infiltrated by commercial posters who try to sell their products.
Bad products may have great-looking websites. On the internet, just as in the real world, thousands of unscrupulous businesses offer miracle cures, useless medications and treatments, ambulance-chaser attorney services, and elaborate but medically unsound “theories” of disease. These days, they may well have a political agenda, even be driven by conspiracy theorists. They can prey on vulnerable consumers, and they bilk the American public out of billions of dollars a year.
Above all, it’s important to remember that online healthcare information cannot take the place of advice from your own doctor. Fortunately, more and more healthcare providers and professional medical associations are realizing that their own web presence can help support patient education by offering sound consumer advice.
Two good places to start your search
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that is responsible for health-related research. It is divided into 27 institutes and centers, each of which has a website with quality consumer information covering a particular aspect of healthcare.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus site is another great place to begin your search. The site includes information on a wide variety of health topics and each topic includes a curated, vetted collection of approved links to web information, videos and tutorials from reputable institutions and organizations.