Vintage Dr Google

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 09 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6040
  1. Annemarie Jutel
  1. Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6242, New Zealand
  1. annemarie.jutel{at}

Anxiety about the proliferation and use of medical information by lay people has troubled doctors for more than a century. In 1898, Dr Gersuny, in his hints to doctors and patients, wrote: “Sick people who … have read up their complaint in some book, are a great source of trouble to their doctors and themselves.”1 Doctors of the 20th century fretted over something akin to today’s cyberchondria. One explained that the patient “has heard so much about all manner of diseases that every time he feels a little poorly, he imagines the worst.”2

Like today’s clinicians, our medical predecessors lamented inadequate lay understanding of disease. The layperson “seems unable to form any sort of clear image of anatomical or pathological conditions,” explained Dr Brackenbury.3 However, such ignorance didn’t prevent self diagnosis, and Dr Lapham warned that “the physician must ever be on his guard lest he unconsciously follow along the line of reasoning of the patient, or allow himself to be prejudiced or influenced by the diagnosis given by the patient.”4

There is nothing new under the sun. And there is cause for hope. Lay access to medical information provides opportunities as well as troubles. “With the new information that is accumulating daily and with the intelligent lay interest,” wrote the oncologist Rector in 1936,5 “the outlook is bright.” We could say the same today.


  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.


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