Googling Your Prescriptions: Pros and Cons

Should you use search engines before you take medications prescribed for you by your doctor? There are arguments on both sides!

5 reasons not to Google those prescriptions

  1. The information you find may not be reliable. Anyone can post information on the web. Some studies have found that as many as half of the top results search engines offer you are inaccurate. This can be even more of an issue if you check social media or public forums. With generative AI tools like ChatGPT, people can get completely false information presented in convincing English. While spammy websites used to be easy to recognize because of the spelling and grammar errors, this is no longer always true.
  2. You might not be able to understand the information available. The other side of the coin is that much of the reliable medical information available online is hard for many of us to read. If you don’t understand the vocabulary, you may not get useful information. Studies of patient behavior find that most consumers will not work to decipher tough passages, but will go back to less reliable sources if information from a reliable source is too hard to grasp.
  3. Even when you focus on reliable sources of information, they don’t have your information. Your physician has the information about your health history, other medications you are taking, and their own experience with cases like yours. All these factors can affect their decision-making.
  4. All medications have side effects. Often, a side effect is very rare or is only seen under specific circumstances. Reports on the web may not do the math or share the original source, either, making it hard to make accurate risk assessments. For example, one commonly prescribed medication for osteoporosis has gastritis listed as a side effect. The full prescribing information reports that in clinical trials of 1,140 patients, 2 suffered gastritis. Among the 1,134 patients taking a placebo in the trial, 2 also suffered gastritis. Online discussions rarely give the full picture.
  5. You may cause yourself unnecessary anxiety and stress. Vaccine hesitancy is a good example of a situation in which the anxiety people experience can have serious consequences. People who are fearful about medications may refuse the life-saving vaccinations they need. Even if you go ahead and take the medication you have ben prescribed, you may experience fear and anxiety over false information. Some people will even end up with mild side effects (headaches, for example, or nausea) they might not have noticed if they weren’t worrying about the possibility. This is known as the “nocebo effect.”

5 reasons to Google your medications

  1. Knowledge is power. At least for some patients, having more information is less worrying than having limited information. If you check information from the Food and Drug Administration or the full prescribing information for a medication, you will have a better understanding of your treatment than if you only have a vague recollection of the name of the drug. 
  2. You can take your time. Sometimes a medical appointment can provide a lot of information or even startling or upsetting information. You might not be able to get your head around the details of an unfamiliar medication in the moment. Looking up information when you have more time to process that information could be useful. 
  3. You can go back to your healthcare provider with useful questions. Your physician can tell you what you need to know about a medication. However, you might not know what to ask. Gaining more information can help you formulate questions or concerns which you can then ask about. 
  4. Full understanding might help with adherence. Many patients have trouble keeping up with their medications. The AMA estimates that half of patients don’t take their medications as prescribed. One specialized study found that only about 10% of the subjects actually took their medications as directed, though 79% said they were not having any trouble keeping to their prescribed regimen. Taking your medication “because the doctor said to” might not be as motivating as doing so once you see more complete information.
  5. You may feel more in control of your healthcare decisions if you check information for yourself. For some people, this can be important for comfort and confidence.

Which side wins?

You may have noticed that a lot of the items on both lists are a matter of personality. Will more information make you worry — or keep you from worrying? Will you be more likely to follow through if you find out for yourself — or if you simply put your faith in the healthcare professionals?

Know yourself. 

Here are three essential steps to take if you decide to Google:

  • Stick with reliable sources of information. The FDA has a large amount of reliable information. is another good source of information on medications. Your favorite TikTok celebrity probably is not.
  • Notice your feelings. Are you doing thorough research or are you doomscrolling? If you feel agitated, stop.
  • Talk with your doctor. One study found that more than a third of patients didn’t tell their doctors if they disagreed with their advice, and almost that many didn’t speak up if they didn’t understand what they were told. If your online research is a reaction to either of these situations, speak up. 

Image courtesy of Canva.