A visit to ‘Dr. Google’ can make you better at diagnosis

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Medical professionals often advise patients not to search the Internet for their symptoms before coming into the clinic, yet many people turn to “Dr. Google” when feeling sick.

Concerns about “cyberchondria”—or increased anxiety induced by the Internet—have made the value of using Internet searches controversial.

In a new study, researchers found explored the impact Internet searches have on patients’ abilities to reach a correct diagnosis.

They found that the Internet may not be so harmful after all. Participants across the board demonstrated modest improvements in reaching an accurate diagnosis after looking up symptoms on the Internet.

Participants additionally showed no difference in reported anxiety nor in triage abilities.

The research was conducted by a team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

In the study of 5,000 participants, each person was asked to read a short case vignette describing a series of symptoms and imagine someone close to them was experiencing the described symptoms.

Participants were asked to provide a diagnosis based on the given information then look up their case symptoms on the Internet and again offer a diagnosis.

Cases ranged from mild to severe, but described illnesses that commonly affect everyday people, such as viruses, heart attacks and strokes.

In addition to diagnosing a given condition, participants each selected a triage level, ranging from “let the health issue get better on its own” to “call 911.” Study members then recorded their individual anxiety levels.

The team found that people were slightly better at diagnosing their cases correctly after performing an Internet search.

Participants demonstrated no difference in their abilities to triage nor did they report a change in anxiety after using the Internet.

The work suggests that it is likely OK to tell patients to ‘Google it’. 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.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open. One author of the study is David Levine, MD, MPH.

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