For the past two decades, hundreds of millions of people around the world have done something extraordinary and unprecedented in human history. They’ve turned to the unlimited information resource we call the Internet to ask personal questions about their health and mental health.
And what have they learned?
More than anyone could have imagined. People today are better-informed health consumers than at any point in human history. They know more about their health — and about how their bodies and minds work — than even the best doctor or researcher did just fifty years ago.
We all have become experts on ourselves. And nothing could be better.
But some people seem aghast that we’re still “googling” for our health information. How dare we use the most popular search engine on Earth to answer questions we have about our health or mental health!
Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman, writing over at Vox, just don’t believe the tools we have at our disposal are up to the task:
This has led us to a frustratingly paradoxical place: we have more science than we’ve ever had to make the best possible decisions about our health. Yet in reality, this knowledge usually hits us like a tsunami. We’re drowning in bytes of data we don’t know how to make sense of. Despite all the advances in science, it can even seem as though we’re moving away from evidence-based thinking and toward magical beliefs in miracle cures and fast-fixes. The challenge before us is this: how can we capitalize on all this information to have healthier lives and societies?
Their solution? Turn to meta-analytic reviews and research databases like the Cochrane Collaboration to help answer your personal health questions.
But their solution is equally delusional, suggesting that doctors have “beaten the deluge of medical evidence” by using these evidence-based medicine tools to help overcome the overwhelming deluge of information. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The clinical reality is that there is simply too much research published every week for anyone to keep track of it. This has been the case for the past 40 or more years.
Meta-analytic and systematic reviews are fine as a stop-gap, let’s put our finger-in-the-dike measure for docs, but it’s hardly much of an answer for someone looking for personalized health information. You’re not going to find the best homeopathic or natural remedies for a skin rash in Cochrane (or a systematic review). You’re not going to find the answer to, “I just woke up and my right foot is a bit numb… should I be concerned about this?”
Enter the Power of Dr. Google
The problem with the solution suggested by Belluz & Hoffman is that it doesn’t speak to the real world of most people’s lives. Cochrane simply can’t keep up with the research either in any sort of timely manner. And more importantly, these kinds of databases — and systematic reviews in general — only answer broad research questions. Questions like, “What are the most effective psychotherapy methods for depression?”
Ask these same tools, “What are the most effective psychotherapy methods for social anxiety?” and they’ll be silent.
Ask them, “What medication is most effective for bipolar symptoms for me?” and of course, they have no clue.
That is the power of Dr. Google.
Not only can it answer personalized health questions fairly well, it also does a pretty good job at basic health information (as my study from 2013 showed).
Going Beyond Journal Knowledge
More importantly, Dr. Google puts you in touch with information and knowledge that the traditional journal publishing system simply doesn’t have — patient communities. The knowledge and wisdom passed down by millions of patients is done so through in such communities. Dr. Google has access to them.
All of the tools Belluz & Hoffman suggest as an alternative to Dr. Google do not. In their world, it appears this sort of knowledge doesn’t have much value — the kind of attitude we traditionally associate with academics (oh, hi there Hoffman!).
In fact, the authors of the Vox article seem completely oblivious to the sea change that the Internet has enabled for patients.
People have become more informed (quantity) and better informed (quality) due to the Internet (and search engines such as Google). Suggesting people could “do better” and turn to some other tool that would exclude all of the knowledge and wisdom contained in patient communities, patient blogs, etc. is actually asking people to take a step back.
Continue Using Dr. Google — All the Time!
Maybe consulting the tools Belluz & Hoffman suggest may help a patient who really wants to dig a bit deeper into their health or mental health concern. That’s fine. It’ll bring you up to speed on a portion of the knowledge-base, as it existed in a single point of time, usually from a few years ago.
But to suggest you “never use Dr. Google” is both nonsensical and a non-starter. People will continue to use the world’s largest search engine to do what they’ve always done online — research a topic of interest. And it’ll continue to do what it does — provide people with pretty good answers to their questions. Including their health and mental health questions.
There’s no reason anyone should stop becoming better informed patients — from all sources of knowledge (not just those that some “approve” of).
Read the article: Stop Googling your health questions. Use these sites instead.
Grohol, JM, Slimowicz, J, Granda, R. (2013). The Quality of Mental Health Information Commonly Searched For on the Internet. Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2013.0258