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Checking symptoms with Dr Google is not as harmful as we thought

Published: 30th March, 2021 at 15:22
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Forget 'cyberchondria', search engines can make us better at self-diagnosis, study says.

We've all typed a few symptoms into Google and triggered what feels like an aneurysm when we read the search results. That tingling feeling in your arm? Heart attack! A throbbing headache, you say? Probably a tumour! Despite the occasional scaremongering, however, going to the internet with a list of symptoms can actually make us better at self-diagnosing our health.


That's according to a new study, possibly the most detailed to date on the subject of consulting Dr Google. It found that three-quarters of participants researching symptoms online were able to identify the severity of a situation and choose appropriate care.

In the past, doctors have warned that so-called cyberchondria can lead to a range of problems for patients and doctors alike, from dodgy diagnoses and overcrowded waiting rooms to severe (and understandable) health anxiety in those presented with scary information.

"I have patients all the time, where the only reason they come into my office is because they Googled something and the internet said they have cancer," said study author Dr David Levine from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "I wondered, 'Is this all patients? How much cyberchondria is the internet creating?.'"

Read more about health anxiety:

To find out, Levine along with colleagues at Harvard Medical School, asked 5,000 people to read a short description of a person's symptoms and imagine a loved one was experiencing them. Participants were asked to provide a diagnosis based on the given information then look up their case symptoms online and diagnose again.

The illnesses described were common and ranged in severity from everyday viruses to heart attacks and strokes. As well as diagnosing the imaginary patient, participants also had to decide what should be done next, on a sliding scale from letting the issue resolve itself to calling 911. They also recorded their own anxiety levels.

Researchers found that after researching symptoms online, participants' ability to correctly diagnose the patient improved slightly. There was no change in their recommendations for treatment or the anxiety they felt.


"Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to 'Google it,'" Levine said. "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."


A former deputy editor at Science Focus, Ian once undertook a scientific ranking of the UK's best rollercoasters on behalf of the magazine. He is now a freelance writer, which is frankly a lot less fun.


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