Dr. Google is as popular as ever — can real doctors adapt?

It’s easy to dismiss the Internet as a risky place to look for health information. As HealthTap founder Ron Gutman joked the first time we met, ”On the Internet, every headache becomes a brain tumor in four clicks or less.”

If you’ve ever done an online search for an unfamiliar ache, you can probably relate: That weird pain in your side could mean appendicitis, food poisoning or pregnancy. That nasty rash on your arm could be poison ivy, a spider bite or cancer.

But despite “Dr. Google’s” shortcomings and concerns about so-called cyberchondria, the Web – and search engines in particular – remains a top destination for people seeking out health information. The Pew Internet & American Life Project this week reported that about a third of U.S. adults have gone online to look for health information. And, eight in 10 Internet users say their last health-related search began with a search engine – a figure that has not changed since Pew last asked that question in 2000, despite the rise of social media, health-specific content sites and startups.

The report also found that those health searchers are reaching diagnoses that their doctors disagree with about one-fifth of the time…

A few studies have attempted to evaluate the reliability of search engines but with mixed conclusions…On one hand, the Web can help direct people to valuable information and studies that even their doctors may not be aware of. But search engines alone don’t give people enough ways of gauging a source’s reliability or providing the context they may need to make the most of sources that are actually good…

Tools that connect doctors with patients in HIPAA-compliant digital environments are growing – HealthTap, for example, helps patients directly ask doctors questions online, and Ringadoc lets people consult physicians via video conference. But they’re just beginning to appeal to doctors who are willing to define their roles and organize their time differently.

As mobile adoption grows and digital natives age, a doctor willing to email you and curate online information isn’t just going to be a nice to have — for many, it will be a need to have.

That’s Heussner’s conclusion. The majority of doctors I’ve run into in recent years have been skeptical of absolutely anything I might learn online. With two exceptions. One is a dentist I’ve been seeing as needed for over a couple of decades. He knows me pretty well, knows my interest in science and medicine and the sources I read. The other is more recent – my dermatologist. But, he’s as much of a geek as I am and we share discussions on new findings in medicine in general. Along with geek topics, politics and the future of humankind. A delight.

The rest of the time? The response usually runs 110% negative.


  1. jaksichja

    I must comment that some of M.D.s which I have dealt with in Calif. tend to promote their own websites–as a source of info. However, “the good-old days” of the doctor visiting via a house call are long gone. Perhaps we will eventually have “holographic” doctors in every household? Pardon me if I use the Star Trek analogy

  2. 4Warned

    “Privacy Implications of Health Information Seeking on the Web”, March 2015 issue of Communication of the ACM. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/uopa-ypo022115.php Timothy Libert, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication wrote the article. He authored a software tool that investigates Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) requests initiated to third party advertisers and data brokers. He found that 91 percent of health-related web pages initiate HTTP requests to third-parties. Seventy percent of these requests include information about specific symptoms, treatment, or diseases (AIDS, Cancer, etc.). The vast majority of these requests go to a handful of online advertisers: Google collects user information from 78 percent of pages, comScore 38 percent, and Facebook 31 percent. Two data brokers, Experian and Acxiom, were also found on thousands of pages.
    “Google offers a number of services which collect detailed personal information such as a user’s persona email (Gmail), work email (Apps for Business), and physical location (Google Maps),” Libert writes. “For those who use Google’s social media offering, Google+, a real name is forcefully encouraged. By combining the many types of information held by Google services, it would be fairly trivial for the company to match real identities to “anonymous” web browsing data.” Indeed, in 2014, the The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found Google to be violating privacy Canadian laws.
    “Advertisers promise their methods are wholly anonymous and therefore benign,” Libert writes. “Yet identification is now always required for discriminatory behavior to occur.” He cites a 2013 study where individuals’ names were associated with web searches of a criminal record, simply based on whether someone had a “black name.”
    “Personal health information – historically protected by the Hippocratic Oath – has suddenly become the property of private corporations who may sell it to the highest bidder or accidentally misuse it to discriminate against the ill,” Libert said. “As health information seeking has moved online, the privacy of a doctor’s office has been traded in for the silent intrusion of behavioral tracking.”

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