“Whatever you do,” said the doctor, “please don’t google this.” Her tone was almost pleading. We would find all kinds of horror stories; we would not know which information could be trusted. Of course, we assured her, we would act responsibly.

An hour later we were googling like crazy and had every horror story at our disposal. Headaches, vomiting, loss of appetite and a range of other possible side effects were listed. This was no surprise, because they seem to be the side effects listed with pretty much any medication. In general, however, the horror stories were not too terrible. None of the patients had, for example, joined Ukip or taken up fretwork.

Next we turned to Mumsnet – the Wikipedia of middle-class parenting dilemmas. Opinions varied. Some talked enthusiastically about the drugs they were pumping into their DSs and DDs. Others cited the side effects. (Since this is about one of the spawn, I’m not going into details. Suffice to say that it is nothing too dreadful.)

“Don’t google this” is surely the most forlorn demand since “don’t eat the apple”. We googled like crazy. We googled the diagnosis, we googled the medication, we googled alternative therapies and then, for good measure, we googled the doctor. We even considered retaliatory googling – her colleagues and acquaintances, people with a similar surname – just for good measure.

illustration of a patient in a doctor's office. By Lucas Varela
© Lucas Varela

We would, in all honesty, have googled the drug anyway but her plea simply pushed it up our to-do list. It is, surely, the modern equivalent of a pinstriped gent telling a housewife not to worry her pretty little head about it. (This thought was, I admit, momentarily pleasing, since I don’t recall anyone ever telling me I had a pretty little head.)

Many friends have a similar story of doctors telling patients to shun the web. I don’t know if medical students have to study psychology but even at the basic level, you would think a doctor might see the flaws in this approach.

Now, of course, it must be jolly tiresome for doctors to deal with this. Informed patients are enough of a nuisance; slightly informed ones must be even worse. A few sentences on some chatroom conversation and suddenly years of research and science are cast aside by the digital equivalent of a man in the pub. We can all imagine the conversation: “Are you sure about this doctor? I read that this drug give you boils.”

“What were you reading? Was it in the Journal of Medicine?”

“Er, no, I saw it on itgivesyouboils.com.”

The problem for doctors, who also have to contend with symptom-checkers, is that in Britain, at least, they are not used to being second-guessed. Having enjoyed decades of deference they now find themselves facing the fate of other experts – dealing with a potentially empowered public. Cross-examining a doctor was almost akin to arguing with a priest.

But while the web can certainly stoke irrational fears and certain sites are biased towards horror stories, it is also delivering useful information and even second-opinion services.

A colleague recently recommended a website through which, in return for a £15 fee, qualified doctors will answer any question online.

It is also human nature, especially in the face of serious illness, to want to claw back a little control – and the one thing a patient or relative can do in the face of an unwelcome diagnosis is inform themselves. Doctors are going to have to learn to live with Google and a smarter approach than telling patients not to research their condition might have been to say: “I know you are going to google this. You will see all kinds of ill-informed claims, so do please come back to me with your questions afterwards.”

This would be a doctor working with the grain of the world, recognising human nature and placing themselves on the right side of modernity. And as you leave, you will hear them tapping on their keyboard and realise that doctors can google too.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

Illustration by Lucas Varela

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