That throbbing headache just won’t go away and your mind is racing about what may be wrong. But Googling your symptoms may not be as ill-advised as previously thought.
Although some doctors often advise against turning to the internet before making the trudge up to the clinic, a new study suggests that using online resources to research symptoms may not be harmful after all – and could even lead to modest improvements in diagnosis.
Using “Dr Google” for health purposes is controversial. Some have expressed concerns that it can lead to inaccurate diagnoses, bad advice on where to seek treatment (triage), and increased anxiety (cyberchondria).
Previous research into the subject has been limited to observational studies of internet search behaviour, so researchers from Harvard sought to empirically measure the association of an internet search with diagnosis, triage, and anxiety by presenting 5,000 people in the United States with a series of symptoms and asked them to imagine that someone close to them was experiencing the symptoms.
The participants – mostly white, average age 45, and an even gender split – were asked to provide a diagnosis based on the given information. Then they looked up their case symptoms (which, ranging from mild to severe, described common illnesses such as viruses, heart attacks and strokes) on the internet and again offered a diagnosis. As well as diagnosing the condition, participants were asked to select a triage level, ranging from “let the health issue get better on its own” to calling the emergency services. Participants also recorded their anxiety levels.
The results showed a slight uptick in diagnosis accuracy, with an improvement of 49.8% to 54% before and after the search. However, there was no difference in triage accuracy or anxiety, the authors wrote in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Roughly three-quarters of participants were able to identify the severity of a situation and appropriately choose when to seek care. In addition, people with prior health experience, including women, older adults and those with poor reported quality of life, were “hands-down” better at diagnosis, said lead author Dr David Levine, of Boston-based Brigham and Women’s hospital and Harvard medical school.
These findings suggest that medical experts and policymakers probably do not need to warn patients away from the internet when it comes to seeking health information and self-diagnosis or triage. It seems that using the internet may well help patients figure out what is wrong.
“We did not observe the often-touted “cyberchondria”. That is, after search, folks were not more anxious and heading to the emergency room for care. Many physicians believe that using the internet to search for one’s symptoms is a bad idea and this provides some evidence that is unlikely to be the case,” he said.
“Searchers for the most part did not use poor sources of information such as chat forums or social media. This similarly refutes the idea that folks who search the internet are obtaining ‘bad advice’ from poor data sources.”
Marcantonio Spada, an academic psychologist at London South Bank University who has researched cyberchondria, said the study was well designed, and highlighted the benefits of internet searching when confronted with health symptoms.
“The question remains as to how much internet searching is ‘enough’ to reach the goal of understanding what the health symptom is about. The absence of a ‘stop signal’ to internet searching may spell the risk for the development of cyberchondriac behaviour. Future studies should consider this key question.”
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