i dream of being possible

self diagnosis google and you

As happens every so often, someone has recently decided that the many of us who don’t have adequate access to the medical industrial complex should be further shamed because we’ve done our own research and identified a possible source of some of our struggles. The thesis? That unless at least one professional medical practitioner has evaluated and diagnosed you, any problems you might be having are (still problems!) but not the result of any particular disorder or otherwise diagnosable problem (‘cause if it were, you’d have been to see a doctor! Yay circular logic!).

Now, while I could talk about the inequities in accessing the medical industrial complex that divide along lines of class, race, ability, etc., and aggregrate based on any intersections of oppression. I’m not really going to talk about this, because other people have capably written about these topics. 

(and, I wanna say that even as a canadian, the class issues surrounding doctors are still important. because, for the most part, mental health isn’t covered by our universal health care. and there are *still* problems of access with being poor, being rural, being a poc, etc.)

What I am going to talk about are doctors. Who are these magicians such that they are granted the ability to say “yes, you have this problem” or “no, you do not have this problem” and actually *make it so*? Because, everyone knows, that unless something is perceived or apprehended (ie., diagnosed) by a doctor, it couldn’t possibly exist. This is how powerful these strange and mystical creatures are. 

The first thing for a doctor to be a doctor is to get a medical degree (MD). In canada or the usa, this usually means a prior degree (can be any field, usually science related). So. If the person is motivated, four years for one undergrad, and 3-4 years for the medical degree, and then residency. Takes a long time. Psychiatry, in canada at least, is a speciality requiring a medical degree. So. Yeah. Estimated time to complete, 12 years. Clinical psychology can take less time but often requires an MA and/or PhD. 

So. Look at all of that education. These people must obviously be better than me, for diagnosis and knowing how my body works. Yes? Maybe. *Maybe*

Some problems have a clear physiological basis. Some hormone is too much (or too little). Some part isn’t doing what it should be. Maybe something is missing. Maybe extra. Maybe you can see it with your eyes (microscope included). Maybe there is a definite test with a simple binary yes/no answer. Maybe. Maybe the condition is common and well-known/understood. Maybe your doctor is exceptionally good at their job. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. 

However, if we are talking about invisible (maybe mental or behavioural or even physiological) disorders. Are they better? If a person with fibromyalgia says they are in chronic pain but some doctors don’t believe the condition is even *real*, what are they to do? 

Some (many) of us turn to google. Or some other search engine. Or maybe even go directly to wikipedia. In a recent point-of-care study, it was found that about 46% of doctors used browsers like Google or Yahoo! as an information resources to treat patients. 42% used specialty sites like WebMD or MayoClinic (also check out MedLine for good info). Now the biggest source of info was medical journals (68%), which, if you go to a school large enough to have a medical school, you might have access to the same journals. Or you might know someone with access. The one other large source, colleagues, is definitely not something it would be easy for a non-medical professional to access. 

However, the study makes it clear that if you have browser and internet connection, you have access (at least) to two main sources that *doctors* consult when treating or making a diagnosis. Not too bad. Especially since accessing this is much, much, much easier and cheaper than trying to see a doctor. You also don’t need a medical degree. Moreover, if you go this site to see advanced google search features and tips, it is possible that you can get better at googling than doctors (trust me, speaking as a librarian here, how much even university students don’t understand about using google is amazing). Google, like all things, is a tool that is only as good as the user. 

But. Even if you don’t learn advanced search techniques, how good is google for diagnosis? Another study by Tang Hangwi and Jennifer Hwee Kwoon Ng found that a simple three keyword search was able to make a correct diagnosis 58% of the time. 

Let me repeat that: 

The most simple google search possible correctly diagnoses 58% of the time.

Even more interesting is this conclusion: “Our study suggest that in difficult diagnostic cases, it is often useful to ‘google for a diagnosis.’” (Tang and Ng 2006, 1144).


If it is the case that us regular folk have access to 2/3 major sources of information doctors consult (maybe 3/3 depending on your access to a research library) and that just googling will give a correct diagnosis 58% of the time, then what *exactly* is the issue with self-diagnosis? 

Could you be wrong? Yes. But so can the doctor. Especially if they are using the same sources… 

Are you talking resources from other people with ‘real’ diagnoses? Um… no. How could that even work? Since most of the time, if you are trying to get accommodations, you usually need to provide proof from a medical professional. 

But maybe you’d be able to find some strategies for coping. Maybe find a community of similar people with whom you can commiserate. Maybe get some social support. Instead, you bump up against people who, because of the legitimacy they gain from being diagnosed in the medical industrial complex, have set themselves up as gatekeepers. While shaming and policing. 


My hope is that this post at least serves to poke a hole in one of their common arguments. 

I’ll always trust my own understanding of my body/mind and my skills as a researcher (something I’ve done professionally) over an industrial complex that has consistently shown itself to be racist, classist, fat phobic, ableist, etc. etc. (not to even speak of its disgusting exploitation of poc bodies for medical advancement).