Is Dr. Google a Good Vet?

Anyone who is reading this post obviously spends time on the Internet. If you are like me the internet has become the “go to” source for beginning to gain information on nearly any topic that arises. I often hear doctors complain about clients searching online for diagnoses as well as treatments for themselves and their pets. Is this a dangerous situation? Is this a threat to the livelihood of medical professionals? Many practitioners would reply yes but as a veterinarian I believe there are some very positive aspects about the medical consumer pursuing information in this manner. It is extremely important that both the doctor and client (or patient) understand the role that “Dr. Google” is allowed to play in the course of promoting health.

Clients will often present pets to the hospital with a list of symptoms they have noted as well as diagnoses they have gleaned from the internet. This can be dangerous. First many conditions present with very similar signs. For example, a coughing dog could have contracted a respiratory infection while being groomed, a somewhat minor short term illness. Yet these same symptoms could be associated with heartworm disease, a very serious and epidemic condition. One disease is minor and resolves quickly, the other is potentially fatal This is not an extreme example. Take the situation of a vomiting cat. This could be the result of over grooming and resultant hairballs or this presentation could be indicative of intestinal carcinoma, a very serious cancer.

Misdiagnosis based only on an internet search can be overly frightening on the one hand or falsely reassuring if we “choose” to believe a simpler and less serious diagnosis. Once we start to “fit” symptoms into one particular diagnosis we begin to imagine other symptoms that may go along with our “chosen” condition. The part of us that is in denial will minimize while the “whoa is me” part of our personality will see only serious and fatal disease. Yes we all do this…even doctors. The difference is as doctors we are trained to take a step back and consider the entire picture before making snap judgments. That is at least when we are dealing with our patients and not OUR OWN family members. Once again this is all just human nature.

After reading the above, one might ask “Then what is the good thing about online searches for medical conditions.?” The first point to make is to consider the credibility of the site. If for example, you search human disease conditions, reading information from the Mayo Clinic website should hold much greater credibility than a single individual or self proclaimed expert”. The same is true of veterinary searches. If you find information from an accredited source such as a veterinary college it should bear more weight than a random site that claims to have seen miraculous benefit from a “brand new” treatment. Although sometimes very informative information may, in fact, be imbedded in the midst of one of these “miracle” sites.

So how should we use this information? First when searching online you might want to check with your local vet (I know it is tempting to hit “Dr. Google first”) for credible sources. Secondly when trolling for relevant information try to resist the urge to diagnose and “virtually” treat your pet’s condition before you have a professionally gained working diagnosis. Once the illness is identified then gain knowledge online to become more informed about available treatment. Ask questions of your vet to clarify or validate what you may have read from another source. Avoid placing too much confidence in what you have read until there is adequate time and effort to confirm or rule out your assumptions. It is hard to resist the urge to rapidly gain answers when we are so concerned about what is going on with our pet companions. It should be noted that you may, in fact, uncover some new information that has not yet crossed our desks. Remember we have several species and many conditions to deal with. Your search may only have to focus on one very specific scenario. Don’t be hesitant to bring anything up to your doctor, even printed information. But be prepared to have some of what you have found to be debunked when looked at with a critical, scientific eye.

Concluding, a bit later than I would have liked, Dr. Google can have some valid information to share with you. Unfortunately not all of it is as reliable as we would like. Use it to generate questions, gain scientific knowledge and to raise intelligent issues with your veterinarian. None of us can ever hope to know everything there is about any one topic. The more information that surfaces, the better care we can provide for your pet. Just remember Dr. Google never gets an opportunity to examine your dog or cat, listen to his heart, look into her eyes or to see the response to a gentle pat on the head. Only we have that pleasure.