BOSTON, Mass. — The moment something doesn’t look or feel right, many people won’t run to their doctor, they’ll turn to Google. Although an internet search may not sound like good medical advice, a new study finds it can actually help. Researchers say patients who use “Dr. Google” to find out what’s wrong with them will likely get the right diagnosis.
According to the report, googling symptoms improves peoples’ ability to diagnose their illness without adding additional stress. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School admit that “cyberchondria” has made the value of internet medical searches controversial.
This increased anxiety brought on by continuously looking up every ailment online has even pushed some medical professionals to urge patients not to look their symptoms up online before seeing them. Researchers add anxiety can lead people to think they’re on death’s door when in fact they are perfectly healthy.
Despite Dr. Google’s poor reputation, study authors conclude using the internet to check your symptoms may not be such a bad idea after all.
“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,” study author Dr. David Levine says in a media release. “I wondered, ‘Is this all patients? How much cyberchondria is the Internet creating?”
Can everyday people give out sound medical advice?
Researchers asked 5,000 participants to read a short “case vignette,” describing a number of symptoms and imagine someone close to them was experiencing them. The participants then had to make two diagnoses, before and after looking up the symptoms online.
Cases ranged from mild to severe, but described common illnesses, such as viruses, heart attacks, and strokes. Study authors also asked the group to choose between letting the health condition get better on its own or calling 911. After making their choice, participants reported how anxious they felt.
Results reveal participants were “slightly better” at correctly diagnosing their cases after carrying out an internet search. The process also did not add to their levels of anxiety.
“Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to ‘Google it,’” Dr. Levine says. “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.”
Are robot doctors next?
The team admits it’s not clear whether people would behave the same way if one of their loved ones was truly ill. Moreover, the results won’t represent the reactions of all people who use the internet for health-related searches. Next, study authors are planning on testing whether artificial intelligence could use the Internet to correctly diagnose patients.
“This next study takes a generalized AI algorithm, trained on all of the open-source text of the Internet such as Reddit and Twitter, and then uses that to respond when prompted,” Dr. Levine concludes. “Can AI supplement how people use the Internet? Can it supplement how doctors use the Internet? That’s what we’re interested in investigating.”
The findings appear in the journal JAMA Network Open.
SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.