The internet makes it convenient to learn about medical problems, but is it helping or hurting?
Story: Joy Stephenson-Laws
Online symptom checkers—often referred to as “Dr. Google”—where you simply enter whatever is ailing you and get a likely long list of what may be causing the problem, are some of the most popular and most visited sites on the internet.
There are a wide variety of sites to choose from, including the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, WebMD, and familydoctor.org. While all the online symptom checkers are different in terms of design and functionality, the basic idea is you choose a body part and follow prompts to help get diagnostic suggestions.
When you’re going overboard
While the general consensus among health-care providers is these sites help you be proactive about managing your health, using them too often or visiting bad sites can do more harm than good. In fact, overuse of these has spawned a new term, “cyberchondriac,” a twist on “hypochondriac.” According to experts, cyberchondriacs search the web excessively, and sometimes, obsessively.
The pitfalls of falling into this type of online behavior and the risks it presents to your health are clear. You may start to believe every cough or rash is indicative of something serious. Each click magnifies your fears. You may frantically search for something that says you’ll be fine if you try a new, unproven home remedy.
Neither is good for your health—the former could result in unnecessary trips to the doctor, expensive medical tests, and stress, while the latter may convince you not to seek treatment.
So how can you tell if you are or if you’re becoming a cyberchondriac?
According to a paper by the New York State Psychiatric Institute, here are some telltale signs:
- You check online for symptom information up to one to three hours per day.
- You fear having several different diseases.
- On your worst day, you check sites three to four times a day.
- Looking online to get symptom information makes you feel more anxious.
- Your health is actually medically stable.
If any of the above apply to your online behavior with health research, your best bet is to go cold turkey and stop checking! ‘
Dr. Google’s’ proper role is education
Despite initial, and ongoing, concerns, health-care experts and providers are in agreement the sites are here to stay and their popularity will continue to increase. So get the most benefit from your search.
First, remember not all online symptom checkers are created equal. In fact, researchers put them to the test by seeing how the sites performed on diagnosing case studies used at medical schools. They provided a correct diagnosis as one of the top three possible diagnoses only about 50 percent of the time. They did a little better in advising people to seek immediate medical care, around 57 percent of the time.
Limit yourself to sites that include licensed and respected health-care professionals.
Don’t replace your doctor with ‘Dr. Google’
Doctors unanimously agree that partnering with patients who are well-prepared for their appointments results in more productive discussions and better treatment outcomes. Use the information from online symptom checkers and resources to prepare yourself to know what questions to ask. You can also do the following to maximize the benefit of your appointment:
Prioritize and prepare. Being prepared with the issues you want to bring up will get you more of what you need and give the doctor an easier time understanding your concerns.
Be organized. Clearly define your most important health issues and goals, ideally in order of importance. Organizing helps you get better answers faster.
Be specific. Specific questions—like, “Do patients ever have long-term side effects from CT scan dye?” or “At my age, what are the possible risks of having general anesthesia?”—will convey your concerns more clearly and open up a discussion. Let your doctor know what your plan is and why you’d like to try something else. Keep communications open.
By using online symptom checkers and other health-care sites judiciously, you can enhance your relationship with your doctor and protect your health. Enjoy your healthy life!
About the writer
Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs, a national nonprofit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is “Minerals—The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy.”