Forget 'cyberchondria', Google can help patients' self-diagnosis, study says

Many GPs loath when a patient consultation starts off with the words “I’ve put my symptoms into Google and I think I have…”, but the Googling of symptoms may not be as harmful as feared, a recent study suggests.

Patients have long been warned off using ‘Dr Google’ to self-diagnose and instead have always been encouraged to book in with their GP for an expert diagnosis. But, according to teams from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School Department of Health Care Policy, self-research online for symptoms of illness can help a patient to make a marginally more accurate diagnosis.

“I have patients all the time, where the only reason they come into my office is because they Googled something and the Internet said they have cancer,” said author Dr David Levine, of the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at the Brigham.

This pattern led Dr Levine to wonder if this trend was present in all patients and how much ‘cyberchondria’ the internet is creating?

To find out, Levine along with colleagues at Harvard Medical School, asked 5,000 people to read a short description of a person’s symptoms and imagine a loved one was experiencing them. Participants were asked to provide a diagnosis based on the given information then look up their case symptoms online and diagnose again.

The illnesses described were common and ranged in severity from everyday viruses to heart attacks and strokes. As well as diagnosing the imaginary patient, participants also had to decide what should be done next, on a sliding scale from letting the issue resolve itself to calling 911. They also recorded their own anxiety levels.

While they made slightly more accurate diagnoses after performing an internet search, no difference in their abilities to triage illnesses or change in their anxiety levels was observed.

“Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to ‘Google it,'” Levine said. “This starts to form the evidence base that there’s not a lot of harm in that, and, in fact, there may be some good.”

To read the study’s findings in full visit the JAMA website.

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