You wake up and feel an ache in your chest. Or you notice a rash on what was clear skin when you fell asleep. Your first instinct may be to do like millions of others: grab your smartphone, go online and consult Dr. Google.
Real-life doctors cringe when they hear about patients who self-diagnose using internet medical sites, and people risk scaring themselves half to death by searching the web over symptoms they are feeling. There’s even a name for this: cyberchondria.
But is there any real value, or danger? New research suggests amateur diagnosticians may be more accurate than critics like to admit.
Harvard researchers gave 5,000 adults a medical situation and told them to come up with a diagnosis by searching symptoms online. They also rated their anxiety levels before and after consulting the web. Googling the symptoms not only improved the accuracy of their initial diagnoses, it also kept their anxiety levels in check.
Most of the participants, 85% in fact, were on solid footing with their initial diagnoses. Of the 15% who changed their diagnoses, 10% went from incorrect to correct after doing some research. The best amateur sleuths among the participants were those over 40 years old, women and those who had two or more chronic diseases.
The researchers noted the impressive results may be because search engines have improved over time and now direct people to higher-quality health information curated by major medical centers. Only a handful of the participants used social media sites.
This doesn’t mean that people should choose Dr. Google over their own doctors. The researchers ran the same vignettes by multiple physicians, and their accuracy rates all topped 90%.