“Please don’t confuse your Google search with my medical degree”. The dangers of Googling medical advice

Posted by FirstCare on 20/08/19 10:37
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In the digital age we all rely a little too much on Google. The search engine giant now processes over 40,000 queries per second - a staggering 3.5 billion searches every day worldwide.

When we reach for Google, we’re looking for the answer, and one of the biggest questions we often ask relates to our health.


Online symptom checking is massively on the rise with internet searches about serious health conditions increasing by nearly 9000% since 2015. UK search volumes for terms such as ‘chest pains’, ‘back pain’ and ‘stomach-ache’ grew by nearly 9% last year, sparking fears that the internet is fuelling a new wave of hypochondria – and incorrect self-diagnosis.

While Google health searches can encourage some patients to seek professional help, it’s clear that many choose not to. As NHS GP waiting times continue to grow, patients in some parts of the country are waiting over two weeks to see their doctor according to new figures. It’s no surprise that consultations with Dr Google are on the rise.

But can the medical advice we source from the internet be trusted? Many doctors report that their patients are simply too ready to believe online health advice, while a recent study by The University of Surrey found that online searches can fuel health anxiety. The diagnosis of serious conditions is complex and requires expert, human input. Technology can fall short here, even when using a clever algorithm like Google. 


Many of the health symptoms people search for online are the leading causes of UK workplace absence. FirstCare data shows that musculoskeletal disorders - one of the most searched for medical problems - are the second biggest reason for staff sickness, accounting for over 22% of workplace absences in Q2 of this year and costing employers millions. Such absences are often long term, a worrying trend which has increased by a third since 2014. But the prognosis of musculoskeletal conditions can be massively improved with early intervention.  

Likewise, mental health issues, which are the number one cause of UK workforce absence and a growing challenge for the economy. A report last year by the Working Well Coalition (spearheaded by the John Lewis Partnership, CIPD and others ) predicted that the total cost of absenteeism and reduced productivity due to mental health and musculoskeletal conditions could rise to as much as £87.8 billion by 2025.

Employers need to take a leading role in promoting good mental and physical health in the workplace, and signposting employees to the right medical treatment should be central to this. Creating a culture where staff can access the right advice at the right time benefits businesses in a multitude of ways, from boosting morale and engagement to reducing costs and increasing productivity.  The best performing organisations know this, and many are putting steps in place to give employees an alternative to Dr Google. 

Absence management systems are an excellent way of tackling staff absence, but those that rely solely on software aren’t always effective. Good data alone won’t prevent or reduce absence in the long term. Combining absence reporting with expert medical input can be a better solution.

FirstCare’s absence management system includes a unique 24/7 nurse-led service, which helps businesses to ensure that staff always get the right medical advice. Callers can speak to our team of Registered Nurses, who ensure their symptoms are properly assessed, and signpost to treatment at the critical moment.

Using FirstCare’s STRAWS telephone triage protocol, our nurses carefully capture the caller’s symptoms, taking their medical history and noting other vital information to provide a detailed and accurate assessment and advice. Each caller’s responses are assessed for ‘Red Flags’, determining what course of action should be taken.

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This professional triage does more than signpost employees to their nearest pharmacist or GP. It often saves lives. Last year FirstCare nurses received more than 260 ‘Code Red’ calls, designated as serious clinical incidents. Over half of these calls were made outside of office hours, at a time when worried patients might usually turn to the internet. The majority of callers were experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack or having suicidal thoughts. Rapid medical intervention, and the ability to speak to a medical professional in person, was paramount.

In 2018 FirstCare nurses also averted a number of serious incidents among employees who had incorrectly self-diagnosed an illness, often via the internet. 7 of these callers were at risk of overdosing on medication, and a number had already done so, highlighting the risk of relying on online advice. In some of these cases our nurses needed to arrange emergency medical attention, potentially saving the caller’s life.

Giving employees access to a qualified nurse doesn’t just ensure accurate medical assessment. It can also pave the way for a swift return to work. FirstCare nurses work with each caller to agree a return to work date based on guidelines from the NHS and the Working Fit Occupational Health Consultancy. This gives the patient a realistic goal to work towards, and helps employers to better plan – and ultimately increase – their productivity.

As smartphones become a part of our everyday lives and checking our screens becomes almost automated – Ofcom estimates that we do this every 12 minutes – searches for online medical advice look set to grow. But businesses who give their staff an alternative can secure their future, as FirstCare’s Commercial Director Steve Carter explains:

“It’s never been more important for businesses to get to grips with their productivity and reducing staff absence is central to this. Employees who self-diagnose are more likely to be absent for long periods – and may potentially put their health at risk. Businesses that provide access to accurate medical advice are not only safeguarding their staff – they’re also securing their future.”

Topics: Health, Nurse-led, Absence Management, Google