‘Dr Google' emerges as primary source of information for medical conditions and symptoms

Dr Debbie Glencroos, who has made a breakthrough in testing HIV patients CD4 blood counts, works on some samples at the Wits Medical Centre, Johannesburg.

Dr Debbie Glencroos, who has made a breakthrough in testing HIV patients CD4 blood counts, works on some samples at the Wits Medical Centre, Johannesburg.

Published Jan 21, 2024


FROM checking for symptoms to finding solutions, and even to diagnosing, the world has turned to the internet and ‘Dr Google’ for medical and many other solutions.

And although the trend has not been approved by the various stakeholders and the medical sector, studies have shown that the internet has become the primary source of information for illnesses and even treatment.

And, according to one company which conducted a study of 155 country’s most googled searches last year, the young and old went online to check on signs and symptoms, treatment and cures, the length of illnesses and ways to survive.

“Out of the 155 countries we gathered data for, 57 had diabetes in their top results, and they included Australia, Norway, Singapore and The Bahamas,” a report compiled by an Australian health insurance company said.

While it was the second most searched in the United Kingdom, their data found that cancer ranked second highest among the countries surveyed, followed by pain, HIV, blood pressure and diarrhoea.

According to Compare the Market AU: “HIV was South Africa's most searched health condition, followed by influenza and diabetes; and COVID-19 did not even make the top 10 globally.”

They found that cancer was the second most searched condition overall, appearing in 50 of the 155 countries. “Cancer was the number one most googled health condition in Armenia, Burkina Faso, Guyana, Pakistan, Portugal, Rwanda, and Togo, and ‘pain’ appearing in the top three results for 39 different countries.”

Pain was, the study found, the number one condition in nations including Andorra, Bangladesh, Ghana, Jamaica, Moldova, Nepal, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, while other commonly searched conditions included HIV, blood pressure, diarrhoea, malaria and headaches.

“It is a dangerous trend that the study picked picked up, one that has become a gnawing problem for doctors in the country,” Dr John Venter from Pretoria said.

This, he said, led to patients self medicating because they thought they knew what was wrong with them, yet it is did not take into account underlying conditions and side effects. “We see people coming in with illnesses so severe it becomes difficult to treat them, all because they got over the counter medication and hoped for the best.”

This, said the general practitioner, sometimes was due to the over reliance people had on pharmacies, but it also touched on stigma.

Speaking on HIV being so widely searched in South Africa, he said searches often meant people had symptoms - or knew or suspected that someone did, but too few then went to get their blood checked. “Yes, some do come to us when Google has confirmed it, but if they cannot afford to wait in long queues or pay private doctors, we find that they treat the symptoms in the hope of getting better.”

What this ultimately meant was that they could treat inflammation and infections, coughs and flu, take tonics for lethargy and energy, putting into a state of dormancy virus and bacteria. “But the real problem, which is in their blood composition, continues to grow. The CD4 count goes down and viral load goes up, so that by the time they are forced to go to a doctor they are in a much worse state than if they had initially tested physically.

A researcher of the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) checks an Ebola diagnostic test in Marcoule, November 3, 2014. Researchers of Life Science Division (DSV) developed a rapid diagnostic test for the Ebola virus, named eZyscreen, used on the field without special equipment, from a drop of blood, plasma or urine and able to give an answer in less than 15 minutes for any patient with symptoms of the disease. A prototype will be available soon to allow clinical validation in the field, before the industrialisation phase and production by the French company VEDALAB, European leader of rapid tests. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier (FRANCE - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY DISASTER)

“This in a country which has a good antiretroviral treatment plan and which has attempted to make ARVs as accessible as possible.” She said the numbers of people living with HIV had decreased: ”....but the numbers could be lower if people were more conscientious of their primary health care, tested instead of depending on Google, practised safe sex instead of thinking they were safe only because they got this off the internet.“

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) said last year, that the percentage of people living with HIV in South Africa had decreased from 14.0% in 2017 to 12.7% in 2022. “This translates to approximately 7.8 million people living with HIV in South Africa in 2022 compared to 7.9 million in 2017,” they said when releasing survey results in November.

The HSRC’s Professor Khangelani Zuma said there were several factors which had contributed to the lowering of the HIV prevalence, and they included fewer people getting infected and more children being born HIV-negative. “AIDS-related mortality is lower and people are ageing and dying from natural causes.

“The increase in the population - birth of HIV-negative babies, would also increase the denominator of HIV-negative people in the country, and the epidemic curve also shows an ageing population of people living with HIV who are living longer as the epidemic stabilises,” Zuma said.

The results could be much much better, and the country in a better place if technology was not as accessible and efficient, HIV/Aids and TB activist Mbongeni Mokoena said. “The internet is a largely uncontrolled mine field, and while we embrace what it brings in terms of knowledge and information, we need to remain worried about what it churns up. People will Google and diagnose then treat themselves to the point of death.

“That South Africans search so much on HIV at a time when we should be comfortable in the information readily available, is testament to a bigger problem, and that is their fear to test in case they are told they will die soon, and the stigma which is still associated with a disease which in other countries has become accepted as a way of life.”

The fear of having interrupted access to treatment was another factor, Mokoena said. “Poverty, the lack of economic means and a government that is unreliable at the best of times has channelled people, mainly the youth, to the internet, where they source information and do what they feel will assist them.”