Four things patients should know before Googling health symptoms

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Four things patients should know before Googling health symptoms


Most of us do it—if not for ourselves, for someone we care about. We Google symptoms and self-diagnose before we decide whether or not to see a physician. In fact, Pew reports that 72 percent of Internet users search for health-related information online.

Think about it: how many times have you arrived for a doctor appointment prepared with a list of possible reasons for your ailment?

But there’s a big problem with this sort of practice. Not all results are credible, which can make matters more complicated by causing panic for no real reason. While the Internet is great for several types of research, replacing a professional diagnosis isn’t one of them.

Here are four things patients should know before Googling health symptoms.

1. Anyone Can Publish Content Online

When you Google your symptoms, search engines do their best to pair results that match the search terms used. But search engines do not factor in credence. Your search results may turn up a reputable medical site that provides valuable information. But it can also turn up a Wikipedia article, an open forum, or someone’s personal blog. These sources may be entirely inaccurate and (more likely than not) aren’t being published by a medical professional with the credentials or experience to offer advice on the topic.

2. Wikipedia is NOT a Credible Source

Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website for medical information—and that’s a terrifying fact. Anyone can write and edit Wikipedia articles with wild abandon if they so choose. And even though Wikipedia has policies and guidelines in place to improve the publication, it does not require contributors to adhere to them. It doesn’t even require contributors to provide their real name, which means there is zero accountability for what gets modified or published.

All sorts of misinformation are published on Wikipedia, and that’s particularly alarming from a medical standpoint. In a recent study, nine out of 10 articles concerning the top most costly medical conditions in the United States (coronary artery disease, lung cancer, depression, osteoarthritis, hypertension, diabetes, and back pain) were not up-to-date with the latest research.

3. Googling Symptoms Causes Health Anxiety

Google just about any symptom and there’s bound to be results that suggest surgery or connect the symptom with a form of cancer. These extreme conclusions can cause serious anxiety, especially for people who are already afraid of health problems. This anxiety happens so frequently today, there’s a name for it—cyberchondria. According to the British news source DailyMail.com, millions suffer from it.

Cyberchondriacs turn to the Web for comfort about their health issues instead of a health professional. They can become obsessed and the amount of time they spend checking the Web for information can interfere with their daily lives. Because Internet articles cover everything from the least to most severe cases of health issues, it becomes easy for these people to exaggerate their symptoms and convince themselves their situation is much worse than it actually is.

4. Googling Symptoms Costs Patients More Money

As explained above, Googling symptoms can turn patients into a new type of hypochondriac. Hypochondriacs aren’t faking their anxiety and they aren’t seeking attention. They are genuinely fearful or distressed about their medical condition—even if their fears are irrational. This often leads to frequent and sometimes unnecessary trips to the ER, urgent care, or physician’s office, and ends up costing patients and the healthcare industry billions of dollars each year in unnecessary medical tests and treatments.

Peace of mind is priceless, and the best peace of mind you can receive is through professionally administered medical attention.

If you have health concerns, talk to your doctor—don’t rely on the Internet. If you find exaggerated information about your condition, it could cause unnecessary anxiety. If you find information that downplays your condition, you might fail to give it the attention it requires, which could result in a more serious situation.

Educate yourself regarding your health, but do so by consulting reputable sources, including your doctor’s office and any handouts or pamphlets they provide.

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