OPINION

Australia doctor warns against googling health symptoms

Don't risk Dr Google misdiagnosing your baby

The COVID-19 pandemic has well and truly thrust us into a new world of limits and restrictions that is often difficult to navigate and, as a paediatrician and a parent myself, my heart is absolutely with parents.

Raising a baby is hard enough without having limited access to usual support and social networks, which are important resources for new parents.

While nobody was prepared for any aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, a generation of new parents having to delay medical attention or other significant assistance for their children is one of the unfortunate side effects that have eventuated.

In my capacity as a paediatrician, I've noticed an increase in parents who are isolating themselves from their support networks, from fellow parents, family members and other supports, as well as moving to 'Dr Google' and online diagnoses when their child is unwell.

With parents looking to avoid public spaces, either voluntarily or due to COVID restrictions, it is understandable that they've had to turn to other sources of information for answers to their baby's health ailments.

New research suggests that close to 90 per cent of Australian parents are using search engines to diagnose or treat their babies, which is just a mind-boggling number.

When they come to me, parents have often consulted Dr Google for answers to questions like: why is my child not sleeping? What's that rash? Why did they have a fever and what do I do?

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Although these searches may be helpful, the problem is that the internet can also give a false sense of reassurance or even heighten anxieties.

Heightened anxieties can result in a rush to the emergency room when it may not be necessary and when, especially in these times, we certainly don't want to overload emergency spaces.

Alternatively, online diagnosing can lead parents to delay a professional review of their child because they are incorrectly reassured that there is nothing to worry about when it could be something more serious, something bacterial or fungal that needs specific creams to remedy.

Many GPs and paediatricians across the country, myself included, have identified a rise in cancelled appointments during lockdowns and COVID restrictions.

Research from WaterWipes found that nearly one in five Australian parents have put off taking their child to a doctor when they are ill.

As a parent, I understand the hesitancy to potentially expose our children to otherwise avoidable pathogens, but this large number shows that it's a much more common problem than we initially thought.

While there are so many incredible resources out there, there is unfortunately also misleading information that exists online.

With the massive overload of information available, I believe that the true risk lies, not in an inability to access information, but rather in the million different ways to interpret that information.

For example a quick search for "help my child has a red eye" had a phenomenal 2,680,000,000 results within 0.68 seconds.

There is a huge difference in an eye injury, viral conjunctivitis, allergies or even a serious bacterial cellulitis all of which have a 'red eye' and all of which require very different treatment.

So it goes without saying that solely using the Dr Google method often wields wildly inaccurate diagnoses.

Another insight coming to light is that parents are not talking to friends and family members; WaterWipes research has shown that an alarming 30 per cent of parents have lost their parent support networks.

Opportunities for reassurance or a calm sounding board have been greatly affected by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Being isolated can cause undue stress and mental health challenges making lockdowns even harder to manage.

My suggestion is to have regular virtual catch ups or to even form virtual mothers groups and to reach out for help if you need it.

Remember, it really does take a village to raise a child and families need support to thrive.

When it comes to Dr Google, my one ask for parents reading this, is that they do not risk misdiagnoses when it comes to their children, and that they chat (either in person or virtually) with a healthcare professional.

After all, that's why we're here.

Research by WaterWipes referenced within this article was developed to celebrate the launch of its 100 per cent biodegradable baby wipe range. More information on the new range can be found at waterwipes.com.au

  • Dr Deb Levy is a specialist paediatrician and holistic health expert.
This story Don't risk Dr Google misdiagnosing your baby first appeared on The Canberra Times.