The Internet can't tell if you have cancer

Diagnosis-by-Google is becoming more prevalent.
Diagnosis-by-Google is becoming more prevalent.

Earlier this month, I walked into an exam room and warmly greeted a patient I know well. She immediately burst into tears and said, “I have cancer.” I was alarmed and asked her to give me details about her diagnosis.

“I don't have a diagnosis, yet, but I have a lot of symptoms that I looked up on the Internet, and I'm pretty sure from everything that I read that it's cancer,” She said in one breath.  “Can you test me today?” the woman asked, near hysterics at this point.

I gave her a hug and some tissues and asked her to take a deep breath and start at the beginning.  She described her progression of symptoms over the past six months, beginning with night sweats, then weight loss, then fatigue. She told me that she ignored the symptoms for as long as possible but finally decided to go online and try to diagnose herself before calling a clinician. The websites she checked all pointed to cancer, and given her significant family history of cancer, she was near certain her diagnosis would be grim.

I listened to my patient, taking her symptoms seriously. I reassured her that while these symptoms could very well point to cancer, they were common in other disease processes as well. During her physical exam, I noted an enlarged thyroid.

Basic blood tests revealed hyperthyroidism. I referred the woman to an endocrinologist, who diagnosed her more specifically with Graves Disease and started her on some medication. She is feeling much better and her worrisome symptoms have disappeared.

It is all too common these days for patients to go to the Internet and try to diagnose and even treat themselves before seeking medical care. This is a reality of being a health-care provider in the age of technology. Medical information is quickly available with the use of a laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone. The key is teaching patients where to look for trustworthy information.

While basic websites like WebMD often come up first on a Google search, I refer my patients to MedLine Plus or the CDC. Additionally, the Medical Library Association has published a list of useful websites for accurate and factual patient information.

Unfortunately, there are too many medical websites that are driven purely by advertising or opinion and offer skewed or completely inaccurate information. But even accurate information can be misused or misinterpreted. No matter how factual and current, a visit to a medical website cannot replace a visit with a health-care provider.

Robyn Carlisle, MSN, CNM, WHNP, works as a full-scope midwife at University Doctors and Kennedy University Hospital in Sewell, N.J.

 
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