If the first thing you do when you feel a sniffle or twinge is head to the internet to try to figure out what’s going on, you’re in good company. Surveys suggest about 90% of patients Google their symptoms before they talk to their doctor.
But it can, of course, quickly go awry. Mental health experts now recognize “cyberchondria” — repeated, compulsive internet searches for medical info that can lead to worry and panic — as a real and troubling phenomenon.
Misguided Google searches can also be a deep source of frustration for doctors and other health care providers who say they spend a good chunk of their time with patients tackling inaccurate health advice and self-diagnoses.
“When I hear a patient say, ‘I Googled it,’ I think: OK. How much misinformation am I going to have to dispel?” said Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician at Rooks County Health Center in Kansas, adding that her patients are often fully aware they’ve unnecessarily freaked themselves out.
“None of us can help it!” Oller said. “I don’t blame people for trying to look up their symptoms.”
She’s also certainly had patients who have used the internet to advocate for the care they need — like women who have come to her wondering about ADHD. (The symptoms often go unrecognized in women.) Or patients who have pushed to get necessary cancer screenings.
So how can you make sure you’re using “Dr. Google” effectively? Here are five simple best practices to keep in mind.
1. Start with the websites of major health organizations, universities and hospitals
Inaccurate health information is, of course, everywhere online. Last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, identified misinformation as a public health crisis ― one that has led to many people eschewing COVID-19 vaccines and mask policies. Before the pandemic, health misinformation directly contributed to measles outbreaks across parts of the U.S.
One of the simplest ways to build what Murthy and other public health leaders call “information literacy” is just to start your search with well-known, reputable sources. Oller said you really can’t go wrong if you begin with the websites of major health organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (especially for COVID-19 information) or the American Academy of Pediatrics (which also has HealthyChildren.org specifically for parents and caregivers). The American Academy of Family Physicians also has a patient-facing website full of helpful information, she added.
Many hospitals and universities also have websites with evidence-based health information ― for example, the Mayo Clinic (which lets you search by conditions and has a symptom checker) and Cleveland Clinic. You might move on to specific studies, articles or even forums and support groups from there, but it’s a good idea to root yourself in basic information from a carefully vetted site.
“It’s important always to get your information from reputable sources, but it’s especially so when it comes to medical things,” Oller said.
2. Brush up on some study basics
It’s wonderful and empowering that so much research is now directly available online, often without a subscription through a place like PubMed (the major database for scientific papers). But not all studies are created equal.
Look for some basics that can help indicate whether a study holds up: Was it published in a peer-reviewed journal? That means it has been scrutinized by other experts in the field for quality and accuracy. If so, which journal? What was the sample size like? What limitations have the study’s authors pointed out? Are they transparent about the questions their research cannot address? Who funded the research? And have the researchers disclosed any conflicts of interest?
It can also be useful to look for media coverage of a study, because in an ideal world, health reporters and editors are doing their due diligence when deciding what to cover. Did any news outlets pick it up? Who? What did any outside experts they interviewed about the research have to say? Keep in mind: Researchers have found that studies that can’t be replicated (meaning basically that they’re bad science) tend to be cited and shared more than those that can.
“It can be tough for medical providers, absolutely, to look at a study and tell if it’s reliable or not,” Oller said. “I absolutely understand why, for the lay person, it’s even more difficult.”
3. Check on how your search is making you feel
If you’re searching your symptoms and getting really stressed out, that’s an immediate red flag. Instead of working yourself into a panic, reach out to an actual medical professional who can help provide answers.
“I’ll tell my patients: ‘If you’re noticing that the search you’re going on is increasing your anxiety, then it’s time to call your family doc and talk to me about it,’” Oller said.
Patients also sometimes have the opposite problem, she noted. So they might spend time searching for reassuring stories or anecdotes that they use to try to feel better or ignore their symptoms.
“It might be a serious symptom that really does need to be looked at,” Oller said, “and they find something that says, ‘Well, this wasn’t anything for me.’ So they go, ‘OK, well it’s probably not anything for me either.’”
As you’re searching, do a gut check. Are you making yourself feel stressed or anxious? Are you trying too hard to push away your nagging concerns?
4. Keep track of any sources you find and want to discuss
As you move through your internet search, be sure to jot down the articles or websites you visit. If a particular study or article is of interest, save it. That way, when you go to your doctor, you bring a list of links that you can discuss together.
Oller said she sometimes has patients who come to her wanting to talk about a particular study they saw shared somewhere, but can’t remember where it was or what exactly it claimed.
Your health care provider should be open to talking with you about any research you bring up. If they’re dismissive — without taking the time to explain why they’re skeptical of certain sources, or carefully explaining why they don’t think they apply to you — it might be time to look for a second opinion. Experts should acknowledge that patient research can be a very good thing.
5. When in doubt, talk to an actual health care provider
At the end of the day, nothing beats going to an an actual doctor, nurse or health care clinic (in person or virtually!) to get answers to the health questions and concerns you have. In fact, Oller said one easy way to know whether you’ve landed at a reputable health website during your search is that those sites tend to direct you to see a health care provider. Credible websites are transparent about the limits of an online search.
“Those sites are the ones that at the end of any entry say ‘Please talk to your primary care doc if any of these things seem true or if you have questions,’” she said. “They’re the ones that lead people toward getting that next evaluation they need.”
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