Closer (UK)


Two-thirds of people check symptoms online before seeing a doctor, and while many experts think that’s a silly idea, Dr Christian says using the internet can be helpful, done the right way


We’re in a pandemic, spending hours in front of computers, lots of us are feeling anxious, and many are avoiding the GP – so it’s no surprise that we’re Googling symptoms and self-diagnosing.


I like my patients using Dr Google, because they become more informed. They don’t have to diagnose themselves – that’s my job – but if they come to me saying they think they know what they’ve got, that helps me. Some things patients latch on to when they Google are useful; it might be that they researched something because their mother or grandmothe­r had it, so it’s a fear. I need to know if there’s an illness in someone’s family, so I can address that with them; and when people are wrong, I can reassure them.


For years people have said using Dr Google is risky because it gives you inaccurate diagnoses, bad advice or makes you a “cyberchond­riac” (obsessivel­y anxious about health). I think it’s understand­able that people would Google a symptom, and it’s a good thing, because it means they are paying attention to changes in their bodies. You wouldn’t say, “Don’t research something in the library” for fear of them getting it wrong. This is the same thing. Also, most people are pretty sensible, and know not to go to dodgy blogs and social media when they’re genuinely concerned.


We’re focusing too much on the very few times when people diagnose themselves with a brain tumour, when they actually have a migraine. The vast majority of people look up something and find a fairly sensible explanatio­n for their symptoms – then check with the pharmacist or doctor. The people who become very anxious and keep turning up at the GP surgery would have done that even without the internet. They would have ordered health textbooks to look for problems. Those people are a tiny minority, and not caused by Google. If a patient suggests something very unusual, I explore other causes of the same symptoms, but it may also give me an insight into their mental health. They may have some anxiety bubbling along, and that’s valuable for me to know. One worry is that people have tests, say for a lump, and while they wait for results they terrify themselves with other possibilit­ies. Most people know themselves pretty well; if you tend to catastroph­ise and panic, Googling may not be a good idea. Stay calm and read all the info, not just the scary bits, then the search will give you all the facts, which is useful. You can also, if you tend to get anxious, Google with someone who is more calm and objective.


Often people buy a load of vitamins to fix their problem. They notice they have brain fog, and decide they’re vitamin B12 deficient thanks to an online article. The problem is that brain fog could have a whole host of different causes. In medicine, one size doesn’t fit all, so you can learn patterns of disease and common symptoms but there will always be patients who don’t fit those. That’s the skill of a doctor, because it’s the colourful background of people’s lives that help us to figure out what’s going on. That’s why it’s fine to Google, as long as you then share your thoughts with a doctor or pharmacist.


Most of us are vitamin D deficient, having just come out of autumn and winter in lockdown, so you could take 10mcg of vitamin D daily; and a bog-standard multivitam­in plus iron is fine. But nobody needs mega doses of anything, unless your doctor has done a blood test and said you need to supplement, or if you eat a very

restricted diet, in which case your GP may suggest taking certain vitamins or minerals, such as B12 for vegans.


Trying to help yourself can be a good idea; if you’re tired all the time, we would first ask you to improve your diet, get into a routine with your sleep, drink a bit less alcohol, try to look at ways to manage or minimise stress. If after a couple of weeks nothing has changed, we would look at the more unusual reasons you could be tired all the time. If you’ve been taking a multivitam­in for a couple of weeks and it hasn’t made any difference, see your GP.

Similarly, the NHS website gives some home treatment advice, so if you think you’ve worked out what you have, you can follow the suggestion­s. But if it hasn’t helped after a week or two, talk to your GP. can also direct you to good charity sites if needed.


If a symptom is really troubling you, listen to that worry and ask your doctor. Never bury it out of fear. It’s understand­able, but if you don’t tell a doctor, we can’t help. Google away, but don’t let it stop you from seeing someone.

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