Two years ago, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic skin disorder. Like any determined parent, I set out to find answers, the correct diagnosis and treatment options.
During a visit to the Cleveland Clinic, a well-respected pediatric dermatologist provided his assessment. He concluded our visit with this command: “Whatever you do, don’t search Google for pictures of this disorder. Those pictures are probably not the same thing your daughter has.”
That’s like putting a plate of cookies in front of a 5-year-old, telling her not to eat the cookies, and leaving the room.
I don’t think we were out of the hospital before I was searching the name of the skin disorder on my smartphone.
Of course, the pictures weren’t pretty, just as the doctor warned. But it immediately made me question the kind of life my daughter might have. Would we find treatment options? If no treatments existed, where would we find support? Do local or online support groups exist for this type of disorder?
The doctor was right. I shouldn’t have looked. But it made me think about how other doctors might discourage (or encourage) their patients to research medical conditions, find answers, and connect with local and online support networks.
Dr. Mike Sevilla, a physician based in Salem, is one of the first medical doctors to use social-media to connect with patients. He said the No. 1 tip he gives patients is to not use Google to start their searches.
“The top Google results usually scare people and usually have inaccurate information,” Dr. Sevilla said.
And if you’re looking for links to social support, skip Google. Social-support networks such as PatientsLikeMe.com or CureTogether.com are independent of hospitals and national organizations. When searching for “cancer support,” these sites don’t show up in the top Google search results.
So where should you start?
Dr. Sevilla suggests four groups of websites that he encourages his patients to use.
Of course, there are limits to finding information online and support through social-media groups. Nothing beats a visit to your physician. But when the next available appointment is weeks away and you need answers now — social media.
I was able to find online support groups for my daughter’s rare condition. As a parent, it was reassuring to know there were others out there who could offer support.
My daughter is fine, and in good health. But next time, I’ll be sure to follow the doctor’s orders and keep a safe distance from Google.
~ A version of this post appeared in the Sunday, August 10, 2014 "Connected" section of The Vindicator.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.