Girl looking at laptop

—Jessie B., University of Windsor, Ontario

One of the questions I ask when people come in with a medical concern is: “What did you read online about this?” Once I’ve figured out what’s actually going on, I’ll then spend time telling them why it’s not what they thought it was based on their search.

It’s important for you to understand what happens when you do an online search versus going to a doctor.

What happens when Google replaces your doctor?

Usually when you search for something that’s bothering you, it’s very vague and non-specific, such as fatigue. Therefore, the list of possible diagnoses is long and can be concerning. This can make people paranoid.

What happens at the doctor?

In the office, a physician will usually gather a history, asking questions such as:

  • What other symptoms do you have?
  • How did each start?
  • Are they occurring every day?
  • What’s the duration: a whole day, a half hour, minutes?
  • What makes it better or worse?

They think about your history and symptoms, and the list is narrowed, but is usually still long. From there, doctors can do the physical examination, perform diagnostic tests, and arrive at a diagnosis. You can do this with a search engine, but it’s more difficult, especially if you don’t know the exact data to enter. This is where your doctor is helpful.

What if I don’t get an appointment right away?

This is important: When you’re looking things up yourself, you need to know that your source of information is reliable. Not all websites are evidence-based and trustworthy. There’s a reason why your professor doesn’t accept Wikipedia as a reference for a research paper.

Reliable sites include:

The Ministry of Health in your province or territory.

Some organizations dedicated to specific health topics (e.g., Breast Cancer Society of Canada).

College of Family Physicians of Canada
Health Canada

Trustworthy websites also keep up with the most recent medical information, so they should state when they were last updated. This date should be fairly recent. These websites should include references from respected medical journals or other reliable online sources.

Essentially, if you have a fever, live in Canada, and haven’t travelled to Africa, it’s unlikely that you have Ebola (even if Google says you do). You probably have a cold, but if you’re still convinced it may be Ebola, ask your doctor.