Health: Looking up symptoms online IMPROVES ability to diagnose without increasing anxiety


Dr Google will see you now! Looking up symptoms on the Internet IMPROVES your ability to diagnose illness without increasing anxiety, surprising study finds

  • US researchers tested the ability of 5,000 volunteers to diagnose illnesses
  • They were asked to do so both before and after looking up symptoms online
  • The findings suggest that concerns over ‘cyberchondria’ might be overblown
  • But the team did not look at cases where people diagnosed their own symptoms

Looking up symptoms on the Internet can actually slightly improve your ability to diagnose illness based on its symptoms without increasing anxiety, a study found.

Researchers from the US tested the ability of 5,000 volunteers to diagnose an illness, based on a given list of symptoms, before and after consulting the web.

The findings fly in the face of the commonly-given advice to avoid consulting ‘Dr Google‘ before visiting a GP’s clinic.

Doctors have feared that looking up symptoms online may act to raise peoples’ anxiety levels, a phenomenon dubbed ‘cyberchondria‘.

While the new findings suggest that this may not be the case, the team warned that the study did not look at self-diagnosis, in which people may react differently.

Looking up symptoms on the Internet can actually slightly improve your ability to diagnose illness based on its symptoms without increasing anxiety, a study found (stock image)

Looking up symptoms on the Internet can actually slightly improve your ability to diagnose illness based on its symptoms without increasing anxiety, a study found (stock image)

‘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 paper author and clinician David Levine of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

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‘I wondered, “Is this all patients? How much cyberchondria is the Internet creating?”‘ 

To investigate, Dr Levine and colleagues recruited 5,000 people and asked them to imagine that someone close to them was experiencing a given series of symptoms.

The cases chosen by the team ranged from mild to severe, but all were commonly-experienced conditions including heart attacks, strokes and viral infections.

Each participant was asked to provide a diagnosis based on the given information, both before and after being allowed to look up the symptoms on the Internet.

They were also tasked with selecting a triage level, ranging from ‘let the health issue get better on its own’ to ‘call emergency services’.

Finally, each participant was asked to record their individual anxiety level.

'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 paper author and clinician David Levine of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston

‘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 paper author and clinician David Levine of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

The researchers found that people were slight better at diagnosing ailments correctly after performing an Internet search for the corresponding symptoms.

However, the searching did not appear to result in a change in the participants’ anxiety levels, nor in their ability to correctly select a triage level.

‘Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to “Google it”,’ said Levine. 

‘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.’ 

The researchers cautioned, however, that the study is limited by having the participants pretend to be diagnosing a loved one, rather than themselves.

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It remains to be established whether people would behave the way when experiencing the symptoms themselves and trying to self-diagnose 

With their initial study complete, Dr Levine and colleagues are planning to move on to investigate the ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to use the Internet to accurately diagnose patients based on their symptoms.

‘This next study takes a generalized AI algorithm, trained on all of the open-source text of the Internet such as Reddit and Twitter, and then uses that to respond when prompted,’ Dr Levine explained.

‘Can AI supplement how people use the Internet? Can it supplement how doctors use the Internet? That’s what we’re interested in investigating.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal JAMA Network Open

ABOUT HYPOCHONDRIA 

Health anxiety, or hypochondria, is when you constantly worry you’re ill or getting ill — so much so that it begins taking over your life.

Symptoms include frequently checking your body for signs of illness and obsessively looking at health information on the internet.

Other signs that you have health anxiety is frequently worrying that your doctor may have missed something, as well as getting others to reassure you that you’re not ill.

Anxiety itself can also cause symptoms such as headaches, and an increased heart rate.

Relaxation techniques, as well as attempting to challenge your thoughts, can help reduce health anxiety.

Source: NHS



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