Photo credit: Image by Wolfgang Claussen from Pixabay

Here’s how it plays out in the clinic.

Patient: I have sciatica. 

Ben: Let’s see if it is sciatica and we can do some testing.

Patient: Google told me that it’s ‘sciatica’ because the symptoms match.

Ben: Well, leg pain isn’t always sciatica so let’s see what’s happening with you. Let’s give it a clinical assessment so we can see what’s the real cause of the problem. 

So, what’s the best way to find information about your current symptoms using the internet at home?

I believe the most underrated skill that university taught me was how to analyse any piece of research or data. We had a whole paper dedicated to not only finding the articles you want but analysing the validity and strength of that information.

To be able to go through a study with a fine-tooth comb and know what to look for is essential in the age of information abundance and overload. The internet is very liberating in that it allows any user to freely surf the abyss and try and find answers to a particular question from the comfort of your home. The downside is how to differentiate between strong evidence-based information vs all the rubbish that’s out there?

Without getting into the nit and gritty of analysing evidence (that would take far too long and quite frankly be quite boring), anyone can look at the hierarchy of evidence pyramid and objectively hold up their piece of information to see where it sits on that pyramid. The quality of evidence increases the higher you go up the pyramid and you can then say with ever-increasing certainty that the results are scientifically meaningful.

The other aspect of analysing any information that is not covered by the hierarchy of evidence pyramid is looking at the source of said information. Are there any conflicts of interest or hidden agendas at play? We probably all know the story of coca-cola and the sugar industry in the 1960’s paying scientists to play down the link between sugar and heart disease-promoting fat and cholesterol as the culprit instead. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, therefore, it is always helpful to ask yourself the question above.

Now to the reason I wanted to write this blog in the first place. I realised that a huge chunk of the general public is unaware of ‘Google Scholar’. Google Scholar is a search engine for scientific literature and is my go-to stop for researching anything I’m interested about. It also allows you to customise your search from the year of publication to specific authors to journal paper or even the university that produced that research. My advice when using google scholar is to use only keywords and set your search to a particular time span, say from 2010 onwards so you only get the latest and most cutting-edge of what’s out there.

Congrats, the onus of learning is now in your hands!