Is Googling Your Symptoms As Bad As Everyone Says?


We’ve all done it – heading online to figure out whether that throat tickle may be something more sinister, or whether the cough you’ve had for weeks could really mean something more. But while using Google as a medical database to look up health issues has been typically discouraged and has generally not been super helpful in specifying actual health concerns in the past, a new study suggests it could actually be helpful in some ways, after all.

While there’s very little actual systematic research on how our relationship with Google might affect real-world interactions with medical professionals, and the medical field as a whole, particularly in fields that impact he emergency department, a new team of Australian health researchers have set out to survey a representative sample of ED patients in two clinics, St. Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and Austin Health.

The Australian researchers began their study by gathering anonymous data from 400 participants. Unsurprisingly, the researchers discovered that more than one-third of the adults did indeed consult the internet about their medical problem before attending the ED. In fact, 49 percent of the survey participants admitted that they searched for online health information regularly.

Despite the large warnings we are usually subject to against internet self-diagnosis methods due to the information provided on the internet being potentially incorrect, overwhelming and confusing, or placed there by just about anyone, professional or not, the study revealed that, according to the patients, a quick consultation with the net generally had a positive impact on their visit.

“Specifically, patients reported they were more able to ask informed questions, communicate effectively, and understand their health provider,” the team wrote about the study.

Additionally, when checking their symptoms and getting an opinion from Google, the study indicated that it also didn’t reduce patients’ confidence in the diagnosis they got from the emergency department doctor. According to the results, there was also no sign that there was any impact on whether they complied with treatment.

The Australian researchers also discovered information in regards to the individual participants’ “e-health literacy” by using a specially designed questionnaire that found that those people who scored higher on the questionnaire were more likely to have looked up their symptoms before presenting at the ED. This particular finding within the study indicates that “those who are confident about internet-derived health information are more likely to seek it before they obtain professional assistance,” according to the researchers involved.

Despite there being hesitation on the matter, most of the sites visited and trusted by the patients were hospital websites, online encyclopaedias and university websites, or those with some type of medical background which provided their viewers with trusted information that was more likely to be accurate than self-made blogs, or Twitter advice threads, for example.

According to the researchers, the main drawback for it all actually appears to be psychological, with 40 percent of the study respondents agreeing that getting health info from the internet did make them experience worry, nervousness or anxiety in some type of way. Because of this, many are also encouraging doctors to acknowledge their patients may be doing their own research.

Although nothing will replace a medical consultation, patients and doctors alike should be openly discussing options and concerns, especially knowing that patients will almost always trust a doctor’s information over the internet.

Given the apparent positive impact for the participants, the research team concluded that emergency department doctors should acknowledge and be prepared to discuss online health information with their patients and be open to receiving concerns based upon their research, no matter how impossible you may think it could be.


Start the discussion

to comment