Many support searching online for health answers and even recommend their patients do so when they see them in the surgery, but the Patients’ Ombudsman is concerned about the dangers of trying to replace a professional with a website.
Over half – 54.2% – of Spanish residents say they research healthy lifestyle hacks online, whilst another 52.1% looks up illnesses, 50.9% check their symptoms through google, and 47% look for remedies.
In the last five years, the number of medical-related searches online in Spain have risen by 22% – from 38% in 2011 to 60.5% now, according to the National Telecomunications and Information Society Observatory (ONTSI).
Experts worry this trend could lead to hypochondria, a severe mental disorder where the sufferer genuinely believes he or she suffers from serious and life-threatening illnesses with no real grounds, and which sometimes even leads otherwise perfectly healthy individuals to plan their last rites.
In response, medical professionals say those who cannot keep away from ‘Dr Google’ should limit their searches to sites endorsed by public health bodies and written by qualified doctors.
Those more likely to go online to look up health matters are young adults (80.2%), generally with higher levels of education of graduate standard or the equivalent (82.9%), or those with dependant children (76.8%).
“The patient does not have the necessary criteria, so although there are sources of every type out there, incorrect information is rife – a consultation in person is essential,” says Sergio Gómez Cisneros, a urologist from the Ponferrada Clinic.
But 88.7% of Spanish residents questioned said they would in fact turn to a doctor in person first, before going online, or as well as – and many resort to the internet to find out more about a condition they have already been diagnosed with.
Sometimes this is because they did not fully understand their doctor and want to find out more in simpler terms, Dr Gómez Cisneros says.
Comparing notes is just as likely to be a reason for looking up medical information online, the survey shows – the majority, or 59.3%, of ‘Dr Google patients’ realise looking up conditions on the internet is not a reliable way of finding out more, but more than one in five – 22.3% – resorts to search engines to find out statistics, ask questions, improve their basic medical knowledge and read comments from other users.
In fact, 84% said they had read discussion threads with contributions by internet users who shared their condition, to compare their own experiences.
One of the questions in the 2016 junior doctors’ official exam was whether medics should accept patients as friends on social networks – but although the correct answer was ‘no’, many health professionals disagree.
Chairman of the eHealth Researchers’ Association (AIES), Dr Sergio Vañó, says contact between patients with the same conditions, and between these patients and a professional outside the surgery, ‘can be constructive and reassuring’.
“It steps into the territory of ‘health psychology’, since finding out about others’ experiences with the same problem generally helps,” Dr Vañó says.
“But if people contact each other on social networks without having obtained a diagnosis, they could reach totally wrong conclusions.
“For example, if someone describes abdominal pains and asks opinioins, they might end up erroneously diagnosing themselves with stomach cancer.”
Google searches are only part of the story, however – one in three residents with internet access uses specific health Apps on their SmartPhones; women more so than men, at 36% compared with 31%, and with these searches tending to increase by 35% from the age of 60 onwards.
Over 170,000 health Apps are in existence and the majority are of no benefit, but there are some which GPs even ‘prescribe’, Dr Vañó says.
Some aimed specifically at cancer patients, for example, can be beneficial as the sufferer can find out in advance what the effects of treatment are likely to be, thus reducing their anxiety about the unknown, and they can even report side-effects in real-time and anonymously, which helps with pharmaceutical research, since not every patient reacts in the same way.
‘Telemedicine’, or consultations via video-conference, is a concept which is growing in popularity, since the patient can be located at all times and the system offers peace of mind – in fact, it is becoming more and more widely used in nursing homes or with elderly, sick and disabled people who live alone.
Health tecnhology coordinator Dr Vicente Caballero says 80% of patients go to their GP having already googled their symptoms, and 85% will check their practitioner’s verdict online after the appointment – “so we have to get used to it and adapt to it,” he says.
Rather than fighting the trend – ‘because it’s a bit like picking up a book to learn about something’ – Dr Caballero says he prefers to direct his patients to the sites he considers most helpful if they want to find further information.
Patients’ Ombudsman chairwoman Carmen Flores, however, is dead against doing so and says she ‘cannot believe’ that ‘there are doctors who actually approve’ of online searches.
“We only have one life, and trying to replace professionals with the internet is messing with it,” she warns.