Not Feeling Well? Don’t Rely on Dr. Google To Diagnose Your Condition
You’ve had a pounding headache for hours, and you start to worry. So you go online and look up your symptoms. That’s when the panic sets in: You have brain cancer.
We’ve all been there.
The internet is a treasure trove of medical information that can help you understand what may be wrong. But it’s also easy to go down an information rabbit hole and become convinced you have a life-threatening disease — when the odds are you don’t.
Googling medical information might provide a few pieces of your overall health-care picture, but it takes a health-care provider to put the puzzle together.
Medical Searches Surge
Google revealed a few years ago that 5% of its searches are for health-related information, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering Google processes tens of thousands of searches every second, that means people search for health information hundreds of millions of times each day.
About 35% of American adults had gone online at some point to figure out a medical condition either they or someone else had, a Pew Research survey found. The good news is that about half of those people said the information they found online made them want to involve a medical professional.
Nearly a third of those adults, however, said they never went on to seek an opinion from a medical professional. The report found that those mostly likely to self-diagnose were younger, female and more affluent.
A different survey of family physicians found that 97% of them said patients were coming into their office armed with bad information they found on the internet, and that patients were more likely to question their doctor’s diagnosis and treatments based on what they had read online.
Risks of Self-Diagnosis
Reading up on your symptoms can give you a good deal of knowledge about the possible causes, and that might help your doctor.
There’s a risk, however, that you may latch onto a particular condition and become less open-minded to what your doctor has to say.
For example, if you have a racing heartbeat and look for those symptoms online, you might become convinced you have a heart condition. That could lead to an insistence on unnecessary medical interventions when, in fact, you may be experiencing anxiety.
Or you might insist on a costly CAT scan because an online search revealed your persistent headaches are a symptom of a brain tumor.
Some people, in fact, spend so much time researching their medical conditions that the medical community has coined a term for the anxiety it can produce: Cyberchondria.
The risks of self-diagnosing based on Google searches can fall into several buckets:
- Over- or under-diagnosing a condition
- Misplaced fear and stress
- Failing to seek a medical professional’s opinion
- Becoming anchored to a condition that may not be accurate
How Doctors Diagnose
The trouble with relying on Dr. Google is that it never went to medical school. Nor did it undergo a years-long residency at a hospital, treating patients and learning how to make an accurate diagnosis.
For doctors who aren’t named Google, diagnosing a condition is a meticulous process that includes:
- Learning and understanding your medical, social and family history
- Cataloging all of your symptoms to find patterns
- Asking follow-up questions
- Conducting a thorough physical exam
- Ordering diagnostic tests, such as bloodwork or X-rays
You and your doctor are able to work together and get to the bottom of a condition in a way that’s not possible online.
Being a Savvy User
Whatever its drawbacks, the internet also can be a valuable source of medical information for those who are savvy enough to understand its uses and limitations.
Here are a few tips to consider when using the internet to evaluate a medical condition:
- Try to steer clear of Wikipedia. It’s an open-source site where information may or may not be accurate.
- Government-led sources — including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health — generally can be viewed as providing credible information.
- Hospital systems also work hard to ensure their medical information has been thoroughly vetted by professionals.
- Look for articles that provide links to peer-reviewed clinical studies and quote experts in a particular medical field.
- Beware of sites and articles that are trying to sell you something.