Has Google created a nation of ‘Cyberchondriacs’?

Sometimes, a little bit of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.

Everyone’s guilty of it. Have you ever had a harmless little headache? Then you’ve found yourself with smartphone in hand, searching your symptoms on Google, running down an endless online checklist?

The next thing you know, you’re absolutely petrified you have a brain tumour.

Sound familiar? It’s more common than you think.

By giving us instant health information (ranging from medically sound to commercially manipulative to completely crackpot) without the knowledge or context to decipher it, Google has turned us into a generation of raving hypochondriacs, or ‘Cyberchondriacs’.

A Ten Eyewitness News online poll showed that more than 50 percent of people admitted to having taken panicked trips to the doctor after talking themselves into thinking they could be on death’s door.

“They have near convinced me I’m dying,” poll responder Ana Hamed said of Google symptom searches, while Michael Bielaczek said, “I had a cough, I Googled it, turned out I had full blown AIDS.”

Amy Bastian responded, “I’m a nurse in a GP surgery, and the amount of people who Google their symptoms is bloody ridiculous! Sure, if you want to go from having a sore toe to being clinically dead in two clicks, go for it, but it would really just be easier to come see your GP to start with.”

Instead, many people start with a Google search, or an online symptom checker when they feel ill.

In Australia, half of patients aged 25-44 access health information online, while nearly one in three use the Internet to search specific problems addressed at a GP visit, according to a 2013 study by the Australian General Practice Statistics and Classification Centre (AGPSCC.)

But just how accurate is that health information?

If you’re using an online symptom-checker, the answer might shock you.

A study conducted last year by researchers at Harvard Medical tested 23 of the most popular online symptom checkers, feeding them a range of symptoms from 45 patient case studies.

Distressingly, the correct diagnosis was displayed first in only 34 percent of evaluations.

Likewise, the correct diagnosis was displayed amongst the top 20 possible diagnoses only 58 percent of the time.

Your chances of getting proper medical advice online is worse than winning at two-up. Online symptom checkers are a minefield for misdiagnoses.

So how do we navigate the confusion? Luckily, there are a few guidelines to follow to avoid those late-night panic attacks.

Dr Magdalen Campbell from the Sydney North Health Network says it’s all about increasing your health literacy, and using the Internet as a tool together with your GP.

“We realize patients often Google their symptoms,” she said, ” but since using the Internet as a diagnostic tool is not always the best way to do things, if we’re going to recommend using the Internet, we would do it as part of the consultation.”

Be cautious with the information you find online. Here are some tips, tricks and things to remember:

Don’t Google late at night

If it’s something that can wait, sleep on it. Things tend to look brighter in the morning.

“I usually say don’t do it in the middle of the night because you’re usually tired and anxious and worried by that stage,” Dr Campbell said.

After a proper nights’ sleep, any search results you come across are bound to be less exaggerated by your own fears.

Even doctors have their own GPs

We’re all human, and the advice to resist Internet-based and self-diagnosis goes for everyone, even medical professionals.

“We will tend to, as human beings, disaster-think,” Dr Campbell said. “When we actually get any symptoms, we tend to look at the worst possible scenario and often come out with that. So it’s better to actually go to the GP with any information and concerns, then as a partner with the GP, figure out what the symptoms are and what they really mean.”

If you are going to use the Internet, use reputable sources

Anyone can publish anything on the Internet, so take your search results with a grain of salt. And no, you can’t trust Wikipedia.

A recent study showed Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website for accessing medical information online, but nine out of ten articles on some of the most common medical conditions (coronary artery disease, lung cancer, depression, osteoarthritis, hypertension, diabetes and back pain) did not contain the most up-to-date research and health information.

“Dr Google goes world-wide, so some of the information isn’t even actually relevant in Australia,” Dr Campbell adds. “Dr Google goes to every single website.

“We say look, start with the very reputable ones. Everything from any of the government sites, the National Prescribing Service (NPS), and then move out from there. Primary Health Networks (PHNs) have links and widgets to various different health information sites.

“And for goodness sake, tell me what you’ve got from the Internet – I can tell you myself from knowledge whether it’s reputable, or else I can actually do a search on the secure medical websites, where research is being done.”

Know that online symptom searches can cause ‘cyberchondria’

Remember that online symptom checkers show you every possible diagnosis from a cold virus to leukaemia. And they’re only right about one-third of the time. Keep calm, and take your concerns to your doctor.

“They’ll look down the list and see something they recognize, or that they are concerned or worried about, and then try to fit their symptoms into what that disease is. So we prefer to actually diagnose something prior to them [looking online],” Dr Campbell said.

The moral? If you use the proper approach, you won’t become a victim of cyberchondria.

The Internet can be a fantastic resource for medical information, but only if used wisely, and in its proper context.

Search in the light of day, use a government or doctor recommended resource, and most importantly, your search results are no substitute for your GP.

Keep calm, and Google responsibly.