Google isn’t an MD

Published: November 26, 2011

Google isn't a qualified MD; do not self-diagnose and see a doctor before it is too late. ILLUSTRATION: SHAHERYAR POPALZAI AND ZAHRA PEER

Am I a turncoat? Having spent the better half of my adult life denigrating technology, computers, internet, Facebook and so on, I have finally been converted. Yes, I am now learning how to operate the computer, make an email account and type.

My reservations about social networking are basically privacy issues. People want a witness to their lives. It gives them an angle to ventilate, express, and validate their opinions, mistakes, grievances, aspirations and so on. However, it is an intrusive social network , giving so much access to others about the mundane everydayness of your lives. If I had aloo gosht for lunch why do I need to post it on my wall? Why is scoring likes on a Facebook status of paramount importance? More importantly, why such avid interests in the daily routines of people just like you?

For the people of my generation the internet was akin to the discovery of the wheel; it minimized distances, made people come closer, facilitated the access to knowledge and created new frontiers. The glories of the internet were heralded with much fanfare, great pomp and circumstance.

Yet, as with all things new and untested, through time as the post internet decade has unfolded, it has became clear that certain types of information obtained at the touch of a button may be insufficient and incorrect.

As a doctor, a lot of times I come across people who literally Google their ailments to death.

A very close and dear friend of mine, whose name I’ll withhold, started getting tired easily and had her haemoglobin checked. It was 8.0, which is quite below the average for South-Asian females. Since she was a working mother and was juggling many roles at the same time, she punched in this information on Google and amongst the various reasons given for fatigue and a low Hb, was Anaemia. She was overworked and short on time like all mothers who work. Thus, she believed what Google told her and thinking she was anaemic, promptly started taking a very expensive iron supplement that treats Anaemia.

For two years she took the supplements and her health continued to deteriorate. Finally, we pushed her into going to a doctor after which she was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer or Leukaemia. She was lucky because although diagnosed two years late, she responded to the treatment and her disease is now in remission.

Amongst those who weren’t so lucky was an aunt who tried alternative medicine sites on the net and got to the oncologist when all that could be done was provide pain relief. She died simply because she tried to diagnose herself through the internet.

Remedies for innocuous ailments such as flu, gastroenteritis, and even headaches yield appropriate results, but great caution must be exercised with undiagnosed conditions such as malignancies and systemic disorders like liver and kidney diseases.

People generally punch in their symptoms into the Google search box, and take whatever comes back to them as sound medical advice without verifying it with a doctor. A Google search for headache gives migraine, sinuses and tension as the usual reasons which may fit into a plausible reason but again the age, sex and general health status of the patient are important factors that need to be taken in to consideration. Headaches can be warning signs of more serious ailments especially in the elderly.

Such intransigence can be harmful and at times fatal because information on the internet is streamlined to address a wide audience. Moreover, it has easy to understand descriptions of a disease and does not take into account important details regarding the age, sex, health status and ethnicity of the patient.

The next time you feel the urge to hit the Google button to learn about your ailments remember doctors were put on earth to take over where the internet left off.  Don’t pretend to be your own doctor, and when you feel like there is a problem, it’s ok to pamper yourself by an appointment with that cute General Physician. Humour aside, though it is very important to get a thorough physical examination with baseline tests every six months. Although it may old fashioned and clichéd, but some things are best left in the hands of those who know best.


Mariam Ashraf

A doctor who works in a postgraduate medical institute where doctors come for postgraduate training. Mariam is a teacher, a housewife and a mother who desires the Pakistan that Jinnah dreamed of.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.