Know When to Go to the Doctor

Male doctor working on a futuristic touchscreen display

When it comes to my health, I admit it, I’m a “Googler.” This can be good or bad.

On the one hand, the Internet is a powerful tool for health because you can research to your heart’s content, outside the confines of a doctor’s skimpy visit. I, myself, have learned so much recently from fellow thyroid patients, as I work to figure out my own emerging thyroid condition. Comparing notes with other patients is especially helpful in the face of any condition about which doctors are still debating over the right treatment. Hypothyroidism is one of those, as this episode of the Dr. Oz show explored.

On the other hand, there comes a time – and it may be sooner rather than later – when it’s important to go to the doctor instead of going online. Years ago at Good Morning America, I conducted a little investigation. We identified three “telemedicine” sites where you can ask an online doctor for advice about your symptoms. Then we posed a real-life question to all of them on behalf of a 35-year-old woman. We asked about her severe, unexplained itching and fatigue. All three gave different answers – and all three were wrong!

  • One e-doctor suggested our patient get blood tests to check for an under-active thyroid.
  • Another suggested our patient should get tested for diabetes.
  • Another said, “You are having an attack of acute urticaria,” a skin allergy.

What was the real problem? When our 35-year-old subject saw an internist in person, that doctor conducted a physical exam, something you just can’t do effectively via a computer. That basic exam revealed drastically enlarged lymph nodes, a hallmark of Hodgkin’s disease, a type of cancer.

At least the computer doctors suggested she get lab testing done, which would have brought her into a doctor’s office eventually. On her own, the woman had gone online and solely researched causes of itching. She then called her dermatologist’s office and repeatedly asked him to prescribe skin creams! Worst case scenario: If she hadn’t seen a real, live doctor in person, she could have died.

So if you’re researching your own health online, posing questions to online doctors sight unseen, or calling your doctor’s office and asking for help by phone, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Think of online research as a way to gather more questions rather than to get answers. Then take those questions to your doctor.
  • “Telemedicine” is best for routine problems you’ve had before.
  • If your condition gets no better – or gets worse – after following online advice, get in to see your doctor.