Googling health symptoms is a step many people take before deciding whether to go see a doctor — and it's actually not a bad idea, according to a new study. If you think about it, arming yourself with theories about what's causing your discomfort before checking in with a professional makes a lot of sense.
In a 2018 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, researchers wanted to know how common it was for patients to google health symptoms before being examined, and how googling health symptoms affected doctor-patient relationships. They also wanted to know whether patients complied with treatment plans. The team harvested their data from 400 patients across two large emergency departments (ED) in Australia.
More than one-third of patients reported researching their symptoms on the internet before coming in to the ED. Almost half of those surveyed — 49 percent — said they regularly consulted the internet for answers to their health issues.
The general criticism of googling health symptoms is that the information online is inconsistent and inaccurate, leading to incorrect self-diagnoses. On top of that, there's a chance that it can cause unnecessary anxiety and stress. (How can you go back to being "normal" when you're convinced that mysterious bump is a deadly disease?) However, researchers found that patients believed their quick Google searches positively affected the outcome of their consultations with the doctor. "Specifically, patients reported they were more able to ask informed questions, communicate effectively, and understand their health provider," the researchers wrote in their paper.
As for the concern that someone would believe an online diagnosis more strongly than one from a doctor, researchers found that patients were just as confident in their doctor's determination and followed the treatment they were prescribed. Another good sign was that patients usually got their information from reputable sites: hospital and college websites, or online encyclopedias.
Unfortunately, researchers noted that one downside of googling health symptoms remained: anxiety. Nearly 40 percent of patients reported feeling worried and anxious as a result of consulting Dr. Google.
That said, the study authors recognized that "it may be beneficial for doctors to acknowledge and discuss health-related internet searches with adult emergency department patients." And as long as you don't let yourself go down the rabbit hole of questionable online health research, there's no problem with checking the internet first.