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GEORGE'S POND: Dr. Google and Me

author: George Smith / illustrator: Lee Rapp

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IT COMES AS NO GREAT SURPRISE that the high foreheads, who decide such things, have recently declared Canada to be (a) the second best country in the world in which to live and (b) the seventh happiest country on the planet. That’s good, but I was disappointed to learn that we’ve dropped one rung in the U.N.’s World Happiness Report. Maybe that’s just the Trump effect. It’s like living for years with great neighbours then having some dodgy character move in next door.

A lot of moving parts come into play in making these declarations and it’s beyond the scope of this piece and my limited intellect to attempt to untangle all the nuances and intricacies involved. Suffice it to say that quality of healthcare is a major consideration. And whether it’s the World Happiness Report, the Best Country rankings or any of a number of other rankings of healthcare systems worldwide, we do pretty well. But no one says we’re number one. Second on one, tenth on another, sixteenth on yet another. And a real blow to the ego – the World Health Organization’s controversial rankings place us just 30th. You may argue, as many have, that the WHO rankings are flawed and outdated, but they are alive and well on the Internet and that is embarrassing. In the final analysis, 13th out of 190 countries isn’t too shabby, but why don’t we score higher? Studies by the U.S. think tank, The Commonwealth Fund, and Canada’s Fraser Institute cite wait times as one of our system’s major weaknesses. That echoes what you’ll often hear from the average Joe and Jane on the street.

We’re talking wait times to see your G.P. if you’re fortunate enough to have one, wait times to see a specialist, wait times for diagnostic procedures and wait times for surgery or other treatment. Delays in getting that initial appointment are forcing us increasingly to utilize walk-in clinics and emergency rooms for things that aren’t real emergencies. Neither is an adequate substitute for a doctor who really knows us, but both are a lot better than nothing.

Though walk-in wait times are almost certain to be shorter than what you’ll encounter in your local E.R., I find the walk-in experience unsettling. Sitting in a cramped waiting room packed with people sneezing and hacking a few feet away always leaves me feeling doomed to leave sicker than I arrived. That’s why, when faced with one of those what-will-I-do dilemmas, I often turn to my old standby, Dr. Google. He’s available 24/7/365 and is a cornucopia of information on everything from anaphylaxis to zygomycosis. He never interrupts, never seems distracted, never sneaks a glance at his watch and never takes offence when I seek a second or third opinion.

He’s great, but Dr. Google has such a vast knowledge of every possible trivial or potentially lethal reason for my symptoms that I never know if I just have to tough it out or if St. Peter is frantically riffling through his binder looking for my name.

Another downside is that Dr. Google never writes a prescription or refers me to a specialist. And he comes in so many embodiments that you have to be very selective. I avoid chat rooms where people who failed Anatomy 101 diagnose strangers’ problems. Likewise, beware the many obvious snake-oil sites. Then there are the sites touting the services of legitimate professionals, but where the emphasis seems to be more on profit than healthcare. I know that medicine is a business, but I’d like to think, when I walk in the door, that a healthcare practitioner sees not a dollar sign, but someone who needs help. And, of course, we have highly credible sites like Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Canada, Mount Sinai Hospital and sites owned by various associations such as The Arthritis Society and Diabetes Canada.

The problem is that, once you start with Dr. Google, the journey can become addictive as you flit from one site to another compiling more and more information. It’s easy to get carried away. At the end of it all, unless I’ve self-healed in the interim, I’ll put myself in the hands of my G.P. and let him sort through all the possibilities. He won’t be on his own though. By the time I see him, I probably already have Dr. Google’s diagnosis and I’ll go in with a pocketful of printouts to help my G.P. do his job. But I never quite know how he’s going to react when he learns that I’ve already consulted Dr. Google. I’ve known my doc forever. He’s a casual, informal guy with no God complex, but he’s still a professional and what professional likes to be second-guessed by a schmuck who comes in with a self-diagnosis gleaned from his computer monitor?

To his credit he doesn’t seem to mind. And he pretends to agree that this is my body and it behooves me to be a proactive member of my healthcare team. Oh, he says all the right things and never attempts to coerce me into ditching Dr. Google, but I still wonder if he sees me as a bit of a smart-ass who should just leave the doctoring to the real doctors.

 

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