The Internet does not provide accurate answers to everything, especially medical issues.

Whenever a client walks into my office with their tablets (the electronic variety, not those humble rounded objects that are blister-packed in aluminium strips and used to make us feel better when we were ill), I know I’m in for a long session. Either they use these tablets to make notes during our session, or they refer to the notes they have made before meeting me, or sometimes they just double check what I’m telling them with their most trusted source of medical reference — Dr. Google. Although, this can sometimes interfere with the smooth flow of a medical or psychiatric consultation, I have now come to accept this with good-humoured resignation and have gone on to acquire a tablet of my own to anticipate what google may have already told my clients.

Many contemporary physicians, when they get together at meetings and conferences, generally spend as much of their time extolling the Internet for the great contribution it has made to their continuing medical education as they do to bemoaning it for the adverse impact it has had on their approach to patient care. For, often, before coming to see the doctor, many urban patients seem to have done their research and tend to engage the physician in long discussions on differential diagnosis.

While this can sometimes prolong a medical consultation, since a lot of time has to be invested by the physician in educating a half-informed patient or correcting anxiety-laden misapprehensions, I find the emergence of this phenomenon potentially very constructive, for it finally ushers in the possibility of the healing process being a joint venture between physician and patient.

In other words, health and medical problems are slowly becoming demystified. But, and I wouldn’t like to put too fine a point on this, there is a difference between demystification and knowledge. Even if the functioning of our bodies and minds is now less foggy to us, it doesn’t automatically follow that we possess enough medical knowledge to make informed decisions. And unless both doctor and patient get this, their relationship is bound to become progressively more uncomfortable.

From the first decade of the 21st century, physicians have begun to talk about “googleitis”, which while being a perfectly googleable term, is not a recognised medical condition, and have come to use it in two contexts.

The first refers to the almost compulsive need to check the Internet for answers to every question that arises in one’s mind, even the most trivial ones, like how often the monsoon has been delayed in the last 10 years, or how one can know whether or not an interview went well.

The second variant manifests itself in the context described earlier — one’s health and well-being. And, while the former is at worst annoying to others, the latter has the propensity to be problematic.

The reason for this is simple. The information available on the Internet is so copious that wheat and chaff are extremely difficult to separate. Also, a lot of the information is not necessarily authentic.

Unfortunately, even if one visits only reputable and credible websites, the information available there merely whets the medical surfer’s appetite since most of these sites end up asking one to consult one’s physician for more details, which seems to defeat the purpose for most medical surfers, who therefore end up visiting dubious websites and unmonitored forums where anyone can express any opinion “authenticated” by a hyperlink to a site whose credentials may be difficult to verify.

That medical surfing is the new zeitgeist was brought home sharply to me, when I recently read a horrific story (on the Internet, where else?) of a mother in the United States who took her teenage son to the Emergency Room only seven hours after he suffered a gunshot wound, because she was busy reading up on a popular medical website all about the management of gunshot wounds.

And I am always dismayed to hear the stories of those who google a combination of their symptoms and are convinced they suffer from some rare, untreatable medical condition, and spend months, even years, of their lives seeking expensive and unnecessary treatments.

Also the plethora of health-related information available to us today from the print media as well as the Internet can make us feel thoroughly confused since medical researchers too are busy giving advance bulletins of their research findings and for every finding that says this, one can find an equal number that says that.

It’s no wonder then that we are on the brink of an epidemic of hypochondriasis. Equally distressing is the fact that a large number of people deny themselves the benefit of legitimate medical treatment after googling a list of side-effects that the medicines prescribed by their physician may produce, without realising that the Internet lists everything from diarrhoea to death as possible adverse effects of most prescription medications.

We need some perspective here. The Internet is a huge boon, but googleitis is a preventable nightmare. We can easily avoid it if we realise that not everything in life needs an app. However, on reading this, I wonder how many of us can resist the temptation to google googleitis! Maybe there’s an app for that too!

E-mail: vijay@vijaynagaswami.com