Commentary: Hey, Dr Google. My head is pounding, what’s wrong with me?


BURNABY, Canada: Virtual healthcare was adopted more widely during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people accessing healthcare providers remotely. However, easy and convenient access to technology means some people may choose to bypass healthcare and consult Dr Google directly, with online self-diagnosis.

Here is a common scenario: Picture someone sitting at home, when suddenly their head starts pounding, their eyes start to itch and their heart rate rises. They reach for their phone or laptop to quickly Google what can possibly be wrong.

It’s possible that the search results could offer accurate answers about the cause of the person’s symptoms. Or the search might erroneously suggest they’re well on their way to an early death.

As a researcher in the virtual care domain, I’m aware that online self-diagnosis has become very common, and that technology has shifted the way healthcare is delivered.

PAGING DR GOOGLE

Online health information took on a new importance during the pandemic, when using online sources to assess COVID-19 symptoms and self-triage was encouraged. However, the act of self-diagnosis online is not new.

In 2013, it was reported that more than half of Canadians polled said they used Google search to self-diagnose. In 2020, 69 per cent of Canadians used the Internet to search for health information, and 25 per cent used online sources to track their fitness or health.

Virtual care and online self-diagnosis share some beneficial traits, such as the convenience of not having to schedule an appointment, saving travel time to the doctor’s office and avoiding waiting rooms. However, the key difference between virtual care and Googling symptoms is that there is no direct communication with a physician when self-diagnosing online.



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