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doctor Ellie Cannon

Doctor Ellie Cannon

In her second column, our in-house family GP Dr Ellie Cannon delivers a health warning on using ‘Dr Google’ to diagnose medical symptoms…

The most common complaint I hear nowadays about GPs is that it is very hard to actually see one.

So it’s unsurprising the number of parents who turn to the internet to diagnose their own children, rather than trying to beat the appointment system in their local clinic.

An unwell child is certainly one of the most stressful parts of parenting and, of course, you want answers… fast.

Dr Google certainly wins on the speed front, where the NHS fails. But there are pitfalls to internet diagnosing, particularly for those parents among us who have a tendency to worry.

It is not unusual for a parent to walk in to my surgery and tell me something like: “I looked up Josh’s rash on the internet, and I’m really worried he has necrolytic migratory erythema” with a very fraught expression on their face.

After taking a thorough history and examining Josh, I calmly and confidently reassure mum that in fact he has sunburn after being in the garden all weekend, and luckily I can send them away relieved. This is the phenomenon of cyberchondria… I am not only a diehard fan of the internet, I am reliant on it in my professional life.

But the disadvantage of the plethora of medical knowledge available has been this evolution of “cyberchondria” – looking up your symptoms on the internet and self-diagnosing weird and wonderful illnesses.

This is because, on the vast array of health websites, if you type in symptoms that are troubling you, you not only get the common ailments but an exhaustive list of esoteric diseases most doctors will never see in their whole career (I see a lot of sunburn; I have never seen necrolytic migratory erythema).

Diagnosis is a holistic process taking into account more than just a list of symptoms, so while a symptom checker can give some information, it is not the whole story.

For that reason, thankfully, computers will never replace doctors. This is especially true when diagnosing children as we take into account so many factors – school, diet and home life for instance – that could all be relevant.

I am really keen for parents to be empowered by understanding more about their kids’ health, but you have to be discerning in where you find your knowledge. That is not always easy on the internet.

There are many sites with inaccurate information and inappropriate advice, and that leads to anxiety and disappointment.

For example, many American health websites suggest expensive experimental treatments that would not be available here and that leads to frustrating consultations.

Many sites appear to be written or endorsed by healthcare professionals, but a closer look reveals the information is not bona fide.

It is also important to check when the information was written – even on some medical websites the information may not have been updated for a few years and could be behind the most recent guidelines.

But it isn’t all bad: there are some fabulous resources on the internet I would encourage parents to use.

In our practice, we use the information provided at www.patient.co.uk for patient information leaflets, so when our patients get a prescription, they also get some reading homework as well.

NHS Choices is an excellent online resource and the information ticks all the boxes: genuine, up to date and easily understandable.

My patients with chronic diseases or slightly more unusual diseases find the community available through online support groups exceedingly valuable: charities such as National Eczema Society and Asthma UK provide fantastic information and support online that is readily available to everyone. Parents of children with these types of conditions often find tips and hints from other parents online far more useful that any prescription I can offer.

So before you log on and freak out, here are my top tips for all you budding cyberchondriacs:

1. Make a list of your child’s symptoms and take that to the doctor

2. Once your doctor has told you what they think is the problem, have a look online to get a broader view than can be given in 10 minutes

3. Always check whose advice you are reading – stick to trusted medical websites

4. Remember, “what’s common, is common” – if you live in north London and have sudden-onset diarrhoea, it is more likely to be food poisoning than Ebola.