With our busy lives and the internet just a click away, many of us turn to Google - or ‘Dr Google’ as it’s also known - when we’re feeling under the weather.
In fact, statistics show millions of people look to the search engine every month for information on everything from depression and pneumonia to diabetes and endometriosis.
While a quick search may seem like a time-saver, some medical professionals are warning that Dr Google can often do more harm than good.
One doctor, in particular, is worried that the ‘unreliable information’ and ‘hyperbolic diagnoses’ available on the net could leave patients unnecessarily anxious and even stop them seeking medical help altogether.
Dr Daniel Atkinson, clinical lead at Treated.com, said that while the concept of ‘health anxiety’ isn’t a new problem, the internet and readily available access to medical information has, without question, ‘amplified the issue in recent years’.
A patient with a harmless headache, for instance, could easily be ‘misdiagnosed’ by Dr Google as having a brain tumour, while another’s chest pain could be confused for breast cancer.
Pneumonia is the most searched for health term, with an average of 2.24 million Google hits a month, research by Treated.com found.
In second place is depression, diabetes and endometriosis, with 1.5 million each. These are followed by anxiety, with 1.22 million searches a month.
Dr Atkinson admits having a wealth of wellbeing information at our fingertips does have some advantages.
“It empowers patients to an extent, helping to inform them about what a problem might be and who is best placed to help them whether it be a GP, pharmacist, or specialist consultant,” he said.
More often than not, however, patients are left panicking something may be seriously wrong.
“Unreliable information or hyperbolic diagnoses are, unfortunately, very easy to find online,” Dr Atkinson said.
“Doctors are trained to assess and interpret symptoms, whereas the layperson isn’t.
“So it can be easy for someone to Google a symptom, read a worst-case scenario of what it might be, and then, of course, this idea gets stuck in their head.”
The ‘psychological trap’
While some may immediately rush to their GP for help, an ‘online diagnosis’ could also leave them too anxious to seek a professional opinion.
“In some cases, it might create a psychological trap where a person is caught between two opposing notions,” Dr Atkinson said.
“One - that the symptom is a sign of an illness so serious the person is too afraid to go to a doctor for help, because they presume the worst.
“Two - that this is an overreaction, and the symptom is nothing and isn’t worth wasting a doctor’s time with.
“The longer this person doesn’t seek help, the more this anxiety can build up.
“Their rationale might be, ‘If I didn’t do something about it before, it’s probably too late to do something now’ and so on.”
The rise of the ‘cyberchondriac’
A study of more than 700 people by St. John׳s University in New York found ‘cyberchondriacs’ - a mash-up of the words ‘cyber’ and ‘hypochondriac’ - felt even more anxious after checking their symptoms online.
“Also, some people just don’t like doctor’s surgeries,” Dr Atkinson said. “Whether it’s due to a previous bad experience or fear of being diagnosed with something serious.
“For others, seeing a doctor about a problem makes it real. Googling a symptom isn’t a definite diagnosis.
“So people might be more inclined to Google first and see a doctor later because it means they can, in their heads at least, put off being ill for a bit longer.”
Looking up symptoms online will only “fuel your anxiety further, leaving you more apprehensive before your appointment than perhaps you would be”, Dr Atkinson stresses.
“It’s possible Googling symptoms might convince you you can’t face the news and put you off going to the doctor altogether”, he added.
How to use Dr Google safely
For those insistent on looking up what may be wrong ahead of seeing a GP, Dr Atkinson urges them to use legitimate sites, like NHS Choices.
“If you land on a page after Googling a symptom, take a look around the rest of the site,” he said.
“If it’s not professionally presented, full of ads or riddled with spelling mistakes, it’s likely to be a sign that it isn’t being maintained properly and isn’t as reliable.”
A 2008 survey of 500 people by Microsoft Research found 80 per cent had searched for health information online but only three quarters checked the site was credible and up-to-date.
And remember, as Dr Atkinson pointed out, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
“A patient might feel embarrassed taking time out of their doctor’s day about a problem that could turn out to be nothing,” he said.
“It’s much easier to Google something than to go through the time and effort of talking to a doctor’s receptionist, and then a doctor.
“But doctors don’t view this as a waste of time; just a person who is vigilant and concerned about their health.”
Additional reporting by Alexandra Thompson.
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