To Google or not To Google, that is the question many people ponder when medical issues emerge. What if those medical issues are more urgent, though, or a true emergency? Would Google be able to guide you appropriately?

To Google or not To Google, that is the question many people ponder when medical issues emerge. What if those medical issues are more urgent, though, or a true emergency? Would Google be able to guide you appropriately?


If I had my way, your computer screen would immediately reveal one of three messages if you tried to Google anything other than routine medical or health information: Stop! Call your doctor immediately! Or, Stop! Go to the nearest emergency room! Or, Stop! Call 911...Now!


But, the Google search engine doesn't think like that. Google's goal is to give you information and not to process that information for you. It assumes you can process your own information, including knowing when to call your own doctor.


The scary reality is that too many people simply panic during most medical crises and fail to recognize when to seek help, delaying much needed care. At times when they should be calling the doctor, going to the ER or calling 911, there is way too much consulting of the Web than there should be.


I learned this recently with my own family when a very smart relative opted to Google his symptoms instead of waking his wife or calling his doctor for advice.


He woke up one Sunday morning with a swollen tongue and was having trouble speaking, eating and drinking. Although he recognized the unusual nature of his symptoms, he froze and instinctively consulted Google which yielded little useful information. In fact, there wasn't one authoritative site in the top 10 search results.


When his wife woke up three hours later, he was convinced to consult the on-call physician and to go to the emergency room. By then, the reaction had progressed significantly from just a swollen tongue to his entire face becoming swollen and his throat feeling sore. The ER team determined the man was having a severe allergic reaction from his blood pressure medication. Six hours of intravenous medication later, the reaction was completely resolved. He dodged a life-threatening situation by seconds.


Wikipedia defines an emergency as "a situation which poses an immediate risk to health, life, property or environment." The problem is, as Wikipedia points out, that most emergencies are not as obvious as we would like and "require the subjective opinion of an observer (or affected party) in order to decide whether it qualifies as an emergency."


We all know what true 911 situations are but the ones that get people into trouble are the ones like my relative faced the serious situations that need attention but have a latency period before they explode.


In the end, people save lives, not the Internet. So, if you or a relative find yourself face-to-face with a medical situation that seems unusual and involves a vital organ, the head, neck, chest or abdomen, call your doctor the real one, not Dr. Google.


Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P., is a pediatrician and mother of two from Wayland. A graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, Dr. O'Keeffe completed her residency training at New England Medical Center. Dr. O'Keeffe is founder and CEO of Pediatrics Now, www.pediatricsnow.com, and can be reached at ideas@pediatricsnow.com.