Think Twice Before Googling Those Embarrassing Health Symptoms Online

Imagine you just grabbed your cup from the Starbucks counter and are feeling relieved you found a seat in the crowded coffeehouse until you sit down and open your laptop to be greeted by a video ad of a man describing how he overcame his erectile disfunction. How mortifying, right? Unfortunately this could actually happen to you if you are googling symptoms related to this disorder.

While I’ve thankfully never had this kind of embarrassing moment in public, I did get a very intrusive video ad from a wellness clinic while browsing Youtube recently. It was a video of a woman describing a list of completely unrelated symptoms I had been googling on separate occasions within the last few months. She stated that her chronic yeast infection, ear pain, sore throat and fever were all caused by an overgrowth of yeast throughout her body. She claimed that her health was dramatically improved through a lifestyle change achieved by visiting this particular wellness clinic. This video ad was unsettling to me because I knew I had gotten it as a result of researching my embarrassing health symptoms.

It’s not surprising that ad companies are targeting individuals who research their symptoms, as 43% of visits to hospital/clinic sites originate at a search engine (Gallup). While these types of ads may be beneficial to individuals having trouble finding a health clinic that will meet their needs, what if other kinds of opportunistic companies find a use for this type of information? What if your health insurance company knew that you have been searching serious chest pain, and then they used that information to try to find some other legitimate reason to drop you? Even though you are not discussing this information with a doctor online, I still feel like there should be some sort of patient confidentiality law or protocol to protect this sensitive data.

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