The Dark Side of Google Symptom Diagnosis

Smriti’s mammogram revealed two lumps in her right breast. While waiting in her thin, green paper gown, she started Googling on her smartphone for any relevant medical information. She was busy feverishly bookmarking pages explaining the different types of breast masses, biopsy options, and ‘life with cancer’ support groups. By the time the doctor finally re-entered her room, she was thoroughly convinced she was going to die. The size of the lumps, her fevers, the level of breast pain - they all pointed to Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.

Her mammogram report turned out to be a false-positive.

Smriti’s lumps were just benign masses. Other than maintaining watch over the size of the masses, there was nothing more she needed to do.

Pre-internet, physicians and clinicians held all the power over patients, who could only wait passively for their diagnosis. Now, the web has transformed the relationship between patient and doctor. Informed and empowered by Google, patients research their own symptoms and enter doctor's offices with a list of questions and potential diagnosis. Most of the time, this backfires. Not only does it undermine a physician’s job, but the doctor usually has to calm the patient down who comes in thinking the worst - she has cancer, has only a few weeks to live, and is beyond help. While Google empowers patients to take control of their health, inaccurate and ridiculous answers undermine this power and cause trouble for both patients and clinicians.

Have you ever used Google to self-diagnose and had it return an extreme answer, like cancer?