Doctor vs. Google

doctor pointing at tablet laptop
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Does anyone else remember seeing the school nurse?

It was a feature of school days, where as children we’d be checked over for medical issues of the day and headlice (pretty sure this is still an issue for kids?)

When the ‘nit nurse’ wasn’t combing through my hair whilst I prayed nothing was living it in, she was checking my height and weight.

As a lanky teenager, the nurse once told me I was underweight for my height and tried to identify the reasons for this anomaly.

‘Do you do a lot of sport?’ I smirked. I most certainly did not.

‘Well then, do you eat particularly healthily?’ Again, I grinned. Filet-o-fish and French fries was my favourite meal. With full fat Coke. Followed by chocolate fudge cake.

‘Do you worry about things?’

I froze. Could she see into my soul?

‘Well then’, she seemed satisfied, ‘that explains it. You must worry the weight off’.

I’ve never forgotten this somewhat unscientific diagnosis. I’ve often wished that my worrying did have the power to keep me slim. It doesn’t have much use otherwise and I’ve never been able to stop doing it.

Information revolution

When I look back on that time, we had so little information available to us about medical issues. Doctors and nurses were the ultimate authority, for better and for worse.

Since the Internet empowered us with information, we now Google every health problem. We track and monitor our vital statistics. We know about the rarest of allergies, the most alternative of therapies.

At the same time, we’re becoming more open about sharing our medical concerns and seeking support online. This can be fantastic, particularly as NHS waiting lists get longer and speaking to a doctor can be difficult. For many, the ability to find people who’ve experienced the same problems is an important source of support. Some even make a career out of being a spokesperson for an illness they have.

People want to self-educate and self-diagnose, and healthcare startups are emerging to serve this need. Healthtech or medtech or femtech (confusing) is the next big thing.

But humans problems aren’t that simple.


I unwittingly used a medical app recently.

Arriving for a doctors’ appointment, I was asked for my email address when signing in at a touchscreen in reception. An email popped up on my phone. Without consenting, I’d signed up to an app called Patients Know Best.

On the first log-in, recent blood test results popped up. My blood had been tested for a lot of different things (maybe all of the things).

A series of abbreviations, graphs and numbers appeared, which I was entirely unqualified to interpret. As I googled in a bid to decipher the results, the irony of the app’s title did not escape me.

Normal results were coloured green. But what did the orange mean? And what the hell was that tiny blue crossed box about?

I identified a worrying data point where my results seemed outside of the normal range. I lay awake that night, mind racing. I discussed the news with a few close friends. I started planning lifestyle changes.

This lasted a few days. And…then I spoke to my doctor.

It turned out that I had jumped to conclusions. They didn’t see the results as a problem.

I was confused. Internet sleuthing gave one message and the doctor gave another.

The doctor was the expert on my personal diagnosis. I should have learned a lesson.

Yet a few weeks later I fell down another health related rabbit hole, fuelled by Internet info. Again.

Learning patience

Should I know better?

Or should these apps be better designed? At the very least, you should know you are signing up to them!

It raises concerns about the ethics of health related startups. Those working in the field need an understanding of human psychology and vulnerability. They need to know peopleĀ using their products may well be jumping to incorrect conclusions and worrying. A lot.

Which I can verify doesn’t make you slim.

We need trustworthy and verified sources of health information.

Things may have evolved from the nit nurse. But perhaps we need to re-learn theĀ patience to wait for professional guidance even though a variety of diagnoses are at our fingertips.

We need to resist the urge to Google it.

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