It’s terrifying to read that your sinus headache might indicate brain cancer, but just about everyone googles medical symptoms anyway. In one 2017 study, more than 90 percent of study participants between ages 18 and 39, as well as more than half of those in the 75 and older group, admitted to dabbling in internet diagnosis over the past year.
While looking up health issues online can yield a broad array of alarming results, it can be useful too. After one of our cats bit through my boyfriend’s hand, he turned to Dr. Google, which bombarded him with photos of amputated limbs stemming from cat bites. Motivated by the prospect of becoming thumbless, he hightailed it to an emergency clinic. The doctor said he was smart to seek out medical attention quickly, because cat teeth are like “little needles filled with bacteria.” Our cat had given him an infection.
Still, relying on internet diagnoses has its pitfalls. Some experts say the web can intensify people’s tendency toward hypochondriasis (illness anxiety disorder). One reason for this, according to a 2015 study, is that health sites tend to be risk-averse, meaning they protect themselves against lawsuits by urging visitors to consult a doctor, even when it’s not necessary.
The internet might also create adverse side effects: A study on statin intolerance published in July found that patients who researched statins online were more likely to report negative side effects from their medication than those who’d resisted reading up on the cholesterol-lowering drugs.
How do doctors feel about dealing with patients’ internet discoveries? Should you bring up your DIY diagnoses during appointments? Five healthcare providers sound off.
Orthopedic surgeon, Austin, Texas
I have many patients with whom I spend a long time trying to talk them out of thinking they have cancer or some horrible autoimmune disease. They usually don’t contradict me, but they often question me or state to me what they think is wrong with them. It can be frustrating, but it doesn’t annoy me. The internet is a reality, so wishing that they wouldn’t google health concerns is like wishing the sun wouldn’t come up.
I think it has become more confusing, because there are so many more sites that are really advertisements. Because those sites spend money to put their information at the top of the search, that’s what a lot of patients read. This can lead to the use of herbs and treatments that might not be effective and can delay diagnosis and legitimate treatments.
Can it do patients more harm than good? I have mixed feelings about this. If it causes one person to fail to seek medical attention in a timely fashion, resulting in spread of cancer, then it’s a problem. That being said, this is rare. Online research is really no different than taking advice from friends and family, which people do all the time.
Just be sure you can trust the source. And then don’t ignore pain or symptoms that are getting worse. Even things that seem simple can end up complicated, like a “jammed” finger: You might read something that says to rest it and ice it, but it could actually be broken. If you rest it a long time, it could heal badly or get permanently stiff.
Gastroenterologist, West Palm Beach, Florida
The problem with the information highway is that you don’t have to be licensed to drive it. People who are very smart in their field but lack training in medicine can jump to wrong conclusions. By their nature, medical articles contain information much more likely to scare than calm, and heightened anxiety levels make it harder to listen and learn when you discuss concerns with a professional.
Education can be good as long as you make a pact with yourself not to come to conclusions, but rather to use the information to enhance your overall understanding and make the receiving end of a consultation easier to digest. So don’t tell the doctor your conclusion, but feel free to share your fears and concerns so we are all on the same page.
Physical therapist, Hillsboro, Oregon
Patients who come to physical therapy have fears about spinal and neck issues. Disc herniations also are a scary topic, but we reassure our patients that most people who have disc issues can live very normal, pain-free lives and may not have a disability requiring long-term care.
Online information contradicts what we find clinically like half the time. Sometimes it’s half-right, but when it comes to biomechanics and musculoskeletal issues, injuries tend to be more complex than what patients learn online. For example, plantar fasciitis: Although the pain is largely in the heel and the foot, the cause of the biomechanical fault is way up in the hip. It could also be caused by faulty walking mechanics, bad shoes, weakness, scoliosis, etc.
In general, I like patients being able to search conditions online because it helps inform them that the diagnosis could be myriad things, so they’re more apt to seek professional help to rule out conditions. Currently I like nih.org or the Mayo Clinic for online medical information. I used to like WebMD, but things got too generalized there, and I don’t think it’s as informative as the Mayo Clinic.
Osteopathic physician, Asheville, North Carolina
Some folks won’t listen to what a physician has to say when we try to explain why their simplistic googled idea is wrong, but others are respectful and interested in what we have to say on a topic. Often when patients discuss their internet research, it slows us down, which is not necessarily a good thing. It can also make us lose our train of thought as we try to figure out what is going on, which is potentially dangerous.
There’s all sorts of “medical information” online — some valid, some not so much. A discerning consumer is the best type of consumer, but it’s hard to be discerning from a position of entrenched ignorance. And not all ignorance can be cured. Some folks need to touch the hot stove themselves!
Family nurse practitioner, Lutherville, Maryland
I think the vascular ray of “information” online overwhelms people. I think patients with underlying anxiety will more commonly see a doctor unnecessarily, and I have yet to see a case where an internet search has given patients a false sense of security. I highly recommend they consider going to Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic websites, which have very reliable, informative pages of patient information.
Responses have been condensed and lightly edited.