Guest Commentary

Dr. Google should not be your primary care physician

Why is it more natural to take a supplement sold on Instagram than an extensively researched medication with proven benefits?
Why is it more natural to take a supplement sold on Instagram than an extensively researched medication with proven benefits?

Scrolling through Facebook, I am inundated with advertisements claiming that I can “transform my body in 4 weeks,” “cleanse my liver,” or “lose 10 pounds in 1 week with apple cider vinegar.” These clickbait posts often operate under the guise of “natural remedies,” but they are the modern-day snake oil salesmen. They promise that I can drastically improve my life and even halt the aging process with a green smoothie and, occasionally, by ignoring the advice of years of extensive medical research.

This seems harmless enough right? Stretches and exercises for back pain? Sure. Water with lemon and cucumber? Delicious and refreshing. Refusing the flu shot? Spending hundreds of dollars per year on vitamins and crash diets? No thank you.

As a registered nurse working in family medicine, I experience the repercussions of this medical “advice” every day. There are relatively benign instances where patients will question the effectiveness of their medications. I generally welcome these inquiries because it gives me a chance to educate the patient and further my own understanding.

However, there are some more harmful examples as well. I have seen people decline proven preventative care methods, like mammograms and vaccinations, as well as treatment for serious illness.

The current trend is all things “natural.” Many medications, from aspirin to chemotherapy, are derived from plants. Are these not natural? Why is it more natural to take a supplement sold on Instagram than an extensively researched medication with proven benefits? It can be scary to health professionals when patients believe that any natural products are completely safe. Unfortunately, these supplements often have no proven benefits and can do real harm.

I do not want to criticize everyone who offers exercise and weight-loss tips to friends, family, and followers on Facebook. The only problem is these are anecdotes and, often, a gross oversimplification. What happens when they stop being simple advice, and start taking the place of real medical care?

I believe that patients should educate themselves, and that they should not blindly accept everything their physician tells them. The problem arises, though, when Google overshadows the advice of a medical professional. The health blogger with no medical education becoming a more trustworthy source than the family doctor is incredibly dangerous. This problem is exacerbated by the the mass of health advertisements on social media and TV, but the health care system itself cannot be exempt from blame.

The average person experiences about 5,000 advertisements each day. What percentage of these offer some kind of medical advice? If it is 1 percent, then we see about 50 medical ads per day — probably taking up more time than average people interact with their health care providers in an entire year.

In 2015, a Centers for Disease Control study estimated that only about 17 percent of adults had a usual source of health care. This is compared with 68 percent of adults in the U.S. who use Facebook.

People are being overloaded with information and, of course, they believe what they read when they are unable to spend more than five minutes with their doctor (if they even have one).

Improving access to primary care must become the focus of our health care system. Providers must be incentivized to listen to people, learn the costs of the medicines they prescribe, and regain the trust of their patients.

If not, Americans may start to think of Dr. Oz as their primary care provider, and I fear the results will be costly.

Dahnika Short is a registered nurse at NeuCare, a direct primary care practice in Lawrence.