Google or Web MD is Not a Medical Professional

There’s been a joke going around about using Google or WebMD to diagnose what you thought were probably cold symptoms, only to end up being told it’s cancer.  Just about anything you try and diagnose online ends up being a worst case scenario.  In an age where technology is becoming more and more intertwined with healthcare, it’s natural we’ve started to depend on it more and more.  It’s amazing, but it still doesn’t replace working together with a medical professional.

All Of Human Knowledge at Our Fingertips

The Internet is amazing, and achievement beyond compare of any in human history to date.  It wasn’t even built to do what it’s doing now – disseminate information to a general population – but it’s become indispensable for finding information.  Slowly, finding information has become even more easy on the Internet.  Instead of deep searching, now it’s a matter clicking your way through a list of symptoms to find potential causes, rather than hours and hours of searches for each symptom.

The problem with all that information:  the general person doesn’t have 8 years or more of college to back up that information, along with years of experience in the field.  We have access to knowledge without the wisdom to back it up.

Actually, the staff at Advanced Mobile Healthcare have developed their own terminology for patients who diagnose themselves.  They call these people “Dr Google” who got their medical degree at “Google University”.

What it Takes to Look up a Diagnosis

Using WebMD (as one possible example – there’s more than one way to look up your own diagnosis), it took less than 5 minutes to look up my symptoms – now, I’ll admit I’m cheating, since I already know what I have.  However, it makes a great example:

Symptoms:  Skin Bumps that are red and itchy, and appear mainly on my arms, hands, and face.

Suggestions from WebMD, as ranked by likelihood:

  • Actinic keratosis
  • Sporotrichosis
  • Warts (common)
  • Basal cell skin cancer
  • Endocarditis
  • Folliculitis
  • Bedbugs
  • Boil
  • Chickenpox (varicella)
  • Insect bites
  • Insect sting
  • Porphyria
  • Seborrheic keratosis
  • Erythema nodosum
  • Pustular psoriasis
  • Razor bumps
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Acne
  • Hidradenitis suppurativa
  • Celiac disease
  • Hives
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Rhinophyma
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Shingles (herpes zoster)

What do I have?  Polymorphic Light Eruptions (PMLE), and odd condition where exposure to sunlight causes itchy, red bumps on the skin in some people – though, exact symptoms do vary slightly.  Althoughhough, in all fairness, I have had Basal Cell Carcinoma, so I suppose if I would have narrowed it to just my face it might have been a little closer.  However, PMLE never appeared on the list.

What went wrong?  What did my medical professional ask me that allowed him to make a proper diagnosis?

First, WebMD has no questions that allowed me to adjust for the fact the red, itchy bumps only appeared where the sun touched my skin.  If I had long sleeve shirts on, it only appeared on my hands (and my face if I wasn’t wearing a hat.)  If I had short sleeves, they would appear up my arm.  Since there’s no way to narrow symptoms further, it presented me with a huge list (including Chickenpox, after it asked me to rule out Chickenpox during it’s questioning.)

Second, it didn’t have any of my medical history.  I had already been treated for Basal Cell Carcinoma by my medical professional and a plastic surgeon.  He knew how my symptoms presented, and he knew where and when I had been treated.

Third, he could ask ‘odd’ questions that doesn’t fit into a simple flow chart.  Sometimes it’s possible to end up with photosensitivity caused by something as simple as using the wrong soap.  Sulfides and certain other chemicals (and medications) can cause a temporary allergic reaction, and by asking me a few questions (have you tried different soaps, were you exposed to something when the symptoms presented, etc.)

Finally, he also asked about my family history: did any of the other members of my family exhibit similar symptoms?  Of course, they didn’t. (Or, so I thought.)

Working Together

Not to say there’s zero use for researching your symptoms.  Once my medical professional had narrowed it down to PMLE, I read up on the subject.  Now, as you might imagine based on the fact I now write articles for a medical provider, I’m better than average at researching medical questions.  I also found HPLE, a hereditary version of PMLE that occurs in Native American descendants.  My mother (who has passed, so I can’t ask her directly) was partially Native, so I called my father to inquire, just to make sure she didn’t exhibit any symptoms of PMLE.

Once I found out that she appeared to have similar issues (she avoided direct sunlight most of the time, because she got little red bumps), I was sure to report back to my medical professional so he could update it, and we could talk about potential treatments.  By doing a little footwork, I was able to help him refine the symptoms.


Something else to consider on why trying to diagnose something online is often not a wise choice – who’s responsible?  If your medical professional makes a serious mistake, they work hard to rectify it.  And, if it’s bad enough, they can be sued for malpractice.  They can be brought in front of medical boards, and can have their ability to practice medicine stripped from them.  In other words, your medical professional doesn’t just have an ethical responsibility.  They also have a legal responsibility.  But, what about tools and websites like WebMD?

The information contained herein should NOT be used as a substitute for the advice of an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other health care provider. The information provided here is for informational purposes only. This tool may not cover all possible drug interactions or all FDA warnings or alerts. Please check with a physician if you have health questions or concerns about interactions or go to the FDA for a comprehensive list of FDA warnings. Although we attempt to provide accurate and up-to-date information, no guarantee is made to that effect.

In other words, unlike a medical professional, they have nothing that requires them to be correct, and a disclaimer disavows them of all legal responsibly.  Simply put:  while they are a useful resource, they aren’t a replacement for a medical professional in any way, shape, or form.

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