Dr Google: why diagnosing an illness online could have severe side-effects

Health experts are warning of an age of "Doctor Google", where patients use the internet to find medical advice instead of seeing a GP, a potentially dangerous trend.

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DUBAI // Health experts are warning of an age of "Doctor Google", where patients use the internet to find medical advice instead of seeing a GP, a potentially dangerous trend.

For many, when faced with a medical problem, it can be easier, quicker and cheaper to search the internet for an answer - but while it can be useful to research a condition, an accurate diagnosis can only come from a medical professional, said Dr Hafiz Muhammad Idrees, of Al Tadawi Medical Centre, in Dubai.

"Google, medical books and medical journals - they all give an overview of symptoms but diagnosis is not a patient's job," he said. "Treatment should be from a professional person."

Using the internet leads to self-medication, with potentially dangerous side-effects, he said.

"Self-medication is a very common problem all over the world, including the UAE. There has been a lot of studies on the matter that have all led to the same conclusion; self medication is far more harmful than beneficial," Dr Idrees said.

Online statistics show that every month, 2.74million people Google the word "headache", one of the most common health ailments, while 823,000 search for "stomach-ache", and more than 300,000 search for "medical help".

In January, the results of a study looking at attitudes to Americans seeking health information online found one in three adults use the internet to diagnose an illness for themselves or someone else they care about.

Of those online diagnoses, 77 per cent used a search engine, such as Google, to find out about a potential diagnosis rather than going directly to a health site, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found.

"Some of the disadvantages of self-medicating range from minor allergies to kidney failure and other serious health issues," Dr Idrees said.

People have to remember that most medications can have a potentially harmful side-effect if taken incorrectly, he said, adding: "No one should ever take prescription drugs without consulting a doctor.

"One of the worst side-effects of self-medication I have seen was somebody who had stomach ache took a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug and suffered gastrointestinal bleeding."

Self-diagnosis can also lead to people convincing themselves their ailments are far worse than the reality.

One patient Dr Idrees can recall attempted to self-diagnose his condition and became convinced he had cancer.

Another thought a pain in his foot was gout, added Dr Idrees. It was actually ligament pain from an existing injury.

Dr Google is not comparable with a real doctor, said Dr Nagwa Mahmoud Mossalem, a consultant of internal medicine at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi.

"No one should be dependent on what they see on the internet," she said. "It should be individualised."

And many drugs should not be taken in conjunction with other treatments, or if patients have other medical conditions. For example, she said, antibiotics can interfere with a woman who takes contraception pills and could lead to her becoming pregnant.

Dr Mossalem said she has seen many patients suffer with analgesic nephropathy - an injury to the kidney caused by over-medication - as a result of self-admitting non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs for joint pain. Self-medication, she added, can also mask the real pain or a more serious, underlying condition.

Dr Idrees said one of the harmful aspects of self-medication is wrongful use of antibiotics, such as penicillin and amoxycillin.

"Every antibiotic is different and comes in different doses and is taken for a different amount of time, for example four days, seven days or even four weeks," he said.

Pregnant women, he said, also have to be very careful about self-medicating. Most medications should not be taken if pregnant and misuse of these drugs could be harmful to both mother and child.

"It is always better to see a doctor so they can correctly diagnose," he said.