Consulting “Dr. Google” about your health may be helpful after all — unless you’re prone to health-related anxiety — with patients who researched their situation online reporting a better experience with their doctors, a new study has found.
Previous research has warned online symptom checkers are frequently wrong and can lead to “cyberchondria,” or worry caused by trying to self-diagnose the problem on the internet.
The new paper confirmed hunting for health information online did increase anxiety among 40 percent of patients, but the majority — 77 percent — of people who searched found it had a positive influence on their interaction with the doctor.
“They were able to ask more informed questions, better understand their doctor — including their jargon — and better communicate with their doctor,” Dr. Anthony Cocco, lead author and a physician at St. Vincent's Hospital Melbourne in Australia, told TODAY.
“Certainly, I think that a fear of many doctors is that the patient will trust the internet over the doctor's information... [but] our research shows that, reassuringly, the vast majority of patients would never doubt their doctor’s diagnosis or change their prescribed treatment.”
Informed patient questions:
The study involved 400 patients who came to the emergency rooms of two large hospitals in Melbourne during a four-month period in 2017. When surveyed, more than one-third said they had looked up their health problem online before coming to the ER, with most searching on a smartphone using Google and looking up symptoms and treatments.
In all, almost half of the patients regularly searched for such information, particularly younger and e-health literate patients, the study found.
Most said it helped them communicate with their doctor and ask better questions. Still, many patients may fear mentioning their search, worried that the doctor may react defensively, Cocco said. The study didn’t look at the doctors’ perspective, but urged them to “acknowledge and be prepared to discuss” online searches.
NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar said she’s always OK with patients searching for their symptoms online.
“Never ever think you can’t learn from your patients. There are a few examples of patients keeping me on my toes to be apprised of the latest literature,” Azar noted. “Secondly, we are told during training that the moment you think you know everything, it’s time to retire. Finally, I always appreciate an informed patient question.”
The best way to search:
Know yourself: Based on the study findings, patients who don’t suffer from anxiety and are generally comfortable or experienced with navigating the internet will get the most benefit from searching online before seeing a doctor, Cocco said.
Don’t hide your searches from your physician; mention them: “Ideally doctors and patients should be discussing their searches together so that doctors can dispel any incorrect information and direct patients to good sites,” he noted.
Visit sites that end in .org or .edu, Azar said. “If it’s coming from a reputable medical information website, then it’s more likely to be accurate. I say ‘more likely,’ because remember, even these sites need to be periodically edited and may not always be completely up to date,” she noted. Azar tends to favor websites provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mayo Clinic for quick access. She also uses UpToDate.com, a subscription resource for practicing health care providers. The site has a free basic search for patients.
Think twice about searching for medical information if it makes you very nervous: “If you are someone who is more prone to health-related anxiety, it may not be a good idea to go down that rabbit hole late at night. I know, I have done that myself,” Azar said. Doctors should be aware searching may provoke some anxiety and should be proactively looking out for it in their consultation, Cocco added: “A large part of being a doctor is being the calm in the storm, offering reassurance.”
You still need your doctor: Useful medical information obtained from the internet shouldn’t replace a conversation with your health care provider. Rather, it can complement it perfectly, Azar noted.