By Dr. Genevieve Brauning, Novant Health 

Have you ever looked up a medical question online? Of course you have.

Even as a physician, I have found myself researching my own medical symptoms online, and most of my friends, co-workers and patients have done the same.  

Some patients use the information to pose educated questions that make our visit more valuable. But in far more cases, what they find online has caused them more confusion and worry, and just made them feel worse.  

For instance, I once saw a healthy patient who suddenly lost most of the hearing in his right ear. He was on vacation when the symptoms started and he began madly searching for possible causes. The more he clicked, the more he became convinced he had a life-threatening neurological disease or a brain tumor.

He was so sure he had a terminal illness that he and his wife cut their vacation short. They showed up at my office prepared for a devastating diagnosis.

It turned out to be a big hunk of wax lodged in his ear canal. I took it out and he could hear just fine. It may sound funny now, but the couple was deeply impacted at the time, and it took months for the anxiety surrounding the process to finally resolve. 

Sometimes, resorting to self-treatment discovered online can actually result in physical harm. I once saw a patient who had a cold. She wanted to improve her congestion and runny nose without getting a prescription. After reading about natural treatment options, she made her own nasal spray from a concoction of lemon juice and cayenne pepper. As might be expected, this resulted in significant damage to the sensitive lining of her sinuses, including severe pain, swelling and sores.

Know where to look

The internet offers plenty of reliable medical sites for patients. Sites like WebMD use plain language that doesn’t require a medical degree to understand. Plus they are written and reviewed by trained medical professionals. 

But, what may have started as a well-intentioned search for causes of a sore throat can quickly devolve into reading one person’s experience with an unlikely and unfortunate twist in which their simple sore throat was a symptom of a rare life-threatening illness. 

In the medical world, we call these isolated accounts “case studies,” and we are strictly cautioned to avoid generalizing their outcomes. 

Also, there’s a reason doctors are strictly prohibited from treating themselves. To diagnose a medical condition, we have to be objective. As I consumed a vast amount of medical knowledge in school, I’d start thinking, “Do I have this?” or “Could I get that?”  We’ve all done it. But I can’t be objective about diagnosing myself. And neither can you.

Still, it’s not realistic to tell patient to stop online searches. So here are a  few guidelines I follow myself and share with my patients.

1. Use reliable sites. Most major medical centers and even local doctor’s offices offer patient-friendly information and links. These are a great place to start. Government sites, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, are excellent.

2. Beware of personalized cases, blogs and tales of woe. These are more likely to play to your emotions and prevent objectivity.

3. Avoid sites that profit by selling their own treatments or cures.

4. Know yourself. If you are prone to worry or fearing the worst, limit the time you spend, or completely avoid searching online. Remember that rare diagnoses are unlikely to apply to you. 

5. Do learn more about conditions and diseases. One great use for web searches is to research a diagnosis you have been given by your doctor to learn more about the symptoms, dangers and treatment options.  

6. Prepare for your office visits to maximize the time you have with your doctor. Many reputable sites make recommendations for questions to ask your doctor about your medical condition.

When used with caution, the internet can become a valuable and productive part of your medical toolbox, but remember that it is only a part. When this topic arises, I always think of a mug a patient lovingly gave me. It says: “Don’t confuse your Google search with my medical degree.” 

Likewise, as a physician, I really do get it. So I recommend we open the conversation, accept that online medical searches are going to be around, and teach patients how to be savvy consumers of medical information. 

And before you cut short your next vacation, maybe try to go see a doctor first.


Dr. Genevieve Brauning practices at Novant Health South Park Family Physicians.