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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dr. Google

The Internet is now a part of daily life and is virtually a necessity rather than an option.  It's not going anywhere and in fact has greatly expanded its impact on our lives and culture over the last 10 years.  However, such easy access to information across the world can be a hindrance more than a help, especially to doctors.

When you or your pet is sick, what do you do? Older people will call their doctor.  People of my generation and younger will likely first turn to an internet search, trying to research the problem and potentially make a self diagnosis.  This situation has come to be called "Dr. Google" among vets and physicians and can be a source of concern.  I will readily admit that I've done the same thing, consulting Web MD and other sites when I couldn't get in touch with my own doctor.

There are a number of reasons why clients need to be cautious about doing so.  First of all, there is an art to diagnostics and a good doctor can take symptoms and make a conclusion of a certain disease.  When you read a list of symptoms on a web site it can be quite scary, as some of them can make you think your pet is dying or needs emergency care.  If a vet saw the pet, they may conclude that it's something very minor.  There is a lot of training and practical experience that goes into diagnosing diseases, which a layperson usually isn't able to do.  For example, bloody diarrhea can indicate something as severe as an ulcer or parvo virus, or something as simple as having eaten a piece of ham.  Believe me, I've been concerned about my own symptoms when reading them off the Internet!  You have to take all of that with a grain of salt.

Another reason for being cautious is that you may not always know the source of the information since anyone can post anything on the internet without any editorial review.  I could just say that I'm a vet and most of you wouldn't know any different, especially if what I said makes sense.  For all you know I just play a vet on TV!  Of course, that's not true and there are ways to find out (such as checking a state's veterinary board site and searching to see if the name is a licensed doctor).  But you have to be especially cautious with posts on forums and discussion boards, especially those not coming from a vet.  Medicine is both an art and a science and there are sometimes disagreements even among specialists.  If you don't have extensive training and education, you're simply not qualified to make a final decision as to which opinion is valid.

Now I don't think that everything you find on the Web is junk.  There are plenty of good, reliable sources of information (such as this blog!).  But even if you have a good source, you need to have an open discussion with your vet.  Most of us have learned that clients will sometimes come in with pages of information they printed from web sites, and realize that this is not a transient phenomenon.  Sometimes this is very valid data, and I'm glad that clients are doing their own research and homework.  I'll even sometimes write down the name of a particular disease so people can look it up on their own.  However, be open to your vet disagreeing with that info, including what you find on my own site.  Again, there are several opinions on most medical problems.  Have the discussion and honestly listen to your vet.  They may have an viewpoint contrary to what you read on the Web, but likely have legitimate reasons for how they feel.  Personally I welcom a client wants to talk about my diagnosis and testing based on their own research and aren't just out to prove me wrong.

I'm sure my astute readers will notice considerable irony in my comments today.  "Wait a minute!  Don't you give advice on the internet?  Aren't people coming to you rather than their own vet?"  This situation has obviously not escaped my notice, and I admit a certain guilt in furthering the "Dr. Google" situation.  However, my disclaimer clearly states (for anyone who actually reads it) that any advice here doesn't take the place of a vet visit and I can't properly diagnose a problem over the internet.  Long-term readers will have noticed that I usually refer people back to their own vet for further discussion and advice.  I've also received plenty of emails from clients where I don't even discuss it in the blog but simply tell them to go to their vet.

So yes, check the internet, but never believe what you find here without first talking to your own veterinarian.