Are ‘Medical Googlers’ Really A Problem?

December 12, 2007

After dozens of ventures to create health sites for health consumers, most people still seek medical information through Google. That surprises some tech investors. What’s more, the very act of searching ticks off at least one doctor, and probably many more.

Dr. Scott Haig is aggravated by “Susan,” a patient he considers a “medical Googler” (as he writes in TIME Magazine and as covered in the New York Times). ” We had never met,” he begins, “but as we talked on the phone I knew she was Googling me.” Sounds a little defensive to me. That clackety-clack typing sound he heard could have been her making notes on the conversation, or Googling her health condition, or any number of other less personal activities. (Presumably she Googled him before she placed the call.)

It is rude to surf the Net while you’re on the phone – I’ve been busted for it myself. But no need to jump to conclusions.

Dr. Haig goes on to describe Susan’s irritating personality and seemingly inept parenting – as if those two were inevitable and inseparable characteristics of the “medical Googler.” But guess what? Studies indicate more than 130 million Americans sought medical information online last year. Are they all obnoxious jerks?

Dr. Haig’s reaction is indicative of a deeper trend that troubles many doctors: Patients are arming themselves with medical information and making their own decisions. In the abstract, that’s what they should do. But in practice, it results in a shift away from the doctor-centric model – physician as priest – that many practitioners understandably find more comfortable. And there are risks, which technology has been slow to address.

But here’s the bottom line: They’re here, they’re search-engine is near, get used to it.

If Dr. Haig’s description is accurate, Susan sounds like the kind of annoying patient doctors have had to tolerate since the dawn of the profession. Her ‘Googling’ doesn’t make her who she is – and she won’t change.

But physicians like Dr. Haig will have to adapt – or spend the rest of their careers in a state of heightened aggravation. The ‘Medical Googler’ (and her descendents on newer platforms) are the wave of a future that’s already here.


5 Responses to “Are ‘Medical Googlers’ Really A Problem?”

  1. I totally agree, this doctor generalizes and makes assumptions like few people can. I predict he’ll lose quite a few potential patients who Google him and find this article.

    I think that everyone should Google medical diagnoses– I found out by doing so that my nephew had been prescribed and was taking a medicine that had never been tested nor approved for children under six years old (he was four). So much for his doctor knowing anything. All many of them care about are the payoffs they get from the pharmaceutical companies for making prescriptions and getting out of the office as soon as they can so they can get to their golf match.

    My sister-in-law called the doctor’s office to ask why the medicine wasn’t working (before my Googling), and the nurse who answered the phone told her to DOUBLE the dose. Yes, double the dose of that medicine which shouldn’t even be given to four-year-olds in the first place.

    I don’t really trust doctors not to make mistakes like this, and so I’ll always be Googling just in case. Better to ask questions now, because you may not be able to after the doctor messes it up and you suffer the possibly life-threatening consequences.

  2. Ryan Says:

    My blood boils when I hear doctors who complain about patients who research their sicknesses when it takes weeks – sometimes longer to see a doctor. To expect patients to sit idle without information about their health until they can be seen is ridiculous and bearing on cruel.

    The good doctor fails to understand that a sickness which inflicts the patient sometimes impacts the entire family. Often the entire family is paralyzed until they get more information about their loved one. Doctors should expect that their patients to research their illnesses prior to their office visit. In addition to researching, I have even used websites like which allowed me to interact with a doctor immediately. Once my worst fears have been set aside, the information I learn also assures my family until I am able to see a doctor.

    As you said, the bottom line is that the internet is not going away so patients are going to continue learning about their ailments online. The good doctor should keep his complaints to himself.

  3. David Simmer Says:

    The downside to patients researching their own illnesses (and often then diagnosing themselves) is that they often do not have the educational background or comprehensive understanding of disease processes, epidemiological data, incidence rates, etc. that doctors employ to make accurate diagnoses and treatment recommendations when faced with a complex case.

    Lacking that base of education and discernment, they are then more likely to uncritically absorb information from legit-appearing quacks such as Mercola or other anti-medical, anti-evidence-based online sources, further confusing their understanding and poisoning their trust relationship with their “real” doctor.

    Dr. Haig is right on in saying “that one major responsibility of an expert is to know what to ignore.” With the vast amount of bad information online, non-experts need some guidance.

  4. acai order Says:

    I totally agree. Great post!

  5. […] Trade in your doughnut holes for prawn crackers, and follow David Williams to the East, as he brings us a podcast this week on MedTripInfo: Interview with Bumrungrad CEO Curt Schroeder.  Not everyone is heading East just yet. At The Health 2.0 Blog, Miriam Bookey of Xoova joins Joe Paduda (see above) in looking at members leaving UnitedHealth in droves (following that juggernaut’s acquisition of PacifiCare).  She suggests that docs should focus on their patients’ "customer" experience of their patients.  (Reminds me of all the hospitals that used to have "guest services" departments).  Richard Eskow, at The Sentinel Effect,  comes at this same issue from the other direction, suggesting that docs who don’t like the fact that their patients are wired and Googling need to see the light. […]

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