If the first thing you do when you feel a sniffle or nip is head to the internet to try and figure out what’s going on, you’re in good company. Surveys suggest that around 90% of patients Google their symptoms before talking to their doctor.
But that can, of course, quickly turn in circles. Mental health experts now recognize “cyberchondria” – repeated, compulsive Internet searches for medical information that can lead to worry and panic – as a real and disturbing phenomenon.
Misguided Google searches can also be a deep source of frustration for doctors and other healthcare providers who say they spend a good deal of their time with patients tackling inaccurate health advice and self-diagnoses.
“When I hear a patient say, ‘I Googled it’, I think: OK. How much misinformation will I have to dispel? said Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician at Rooks County Health Center in Kansas, adding that her patients are often fully aware that they have panicked unnecessarily.
“None of us can help it!” Oller said. “I don’t blame people for trying to research their symptoms.”
She’s also certainly had patients who have used the internet to seek the care they need, such as women who have come to her with questions about ADHD. (Symptoms often go unnoticed in women.) Or patients who have pushed for necessary cancer screenings.
So how can you make sure you’re using “Dr. Google” effectively? Here are five simple best practices to keep in mind.
1. Start with the websites of major health organizations, universities and hospitals
Inaccurate health information is, of course, everywhere online. Last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, identified misinformation as a public health crisis — one that has led many people to avoid COVID-19 vaccines and mask policies. Before the pandemic, health misinformation directly contributed to measles outbreaks in parts of the United States
One of the easiest ways to develop what Murthy and other public health leaders call “information literacy” is to simply start your search with well-known and reputable sources. Oller said you really can’t go wrong if you start with the websites of major health organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (especially for information on COVID-19) or the American Academy of Pediatrics. (which also has HealthyChildren.org specifically for parents and caregivers). The American Academy of Family Physicians also has a patient-facing website full of helpful information, she added.
Many hospitals and universities also have websites with evidence-based health information – for example, the Mayo Clinic (which lets you search by conditions and has a symptom checker) and the Cleveland Clinic. You can move on to specific studies, articles, or even forums and support groups from there, but it’s a good idea to root yourself in the basic information of a carefully vetted site.
“It’s important to always get your information from reliable sources, but it’s Above all so when it comes to medical things,” Oller said.
2. Revise some study basics
It’s wonderful and inspiring that so much research is now directly available online, often without subscription via a site like PubMed (the leading database of scientific articles). But not all studies are created equal.
Look for basics that can help determine if a study holds up: Was it published in a peer-reviewed journal? This means it has been reviewed by other experts in the field for quality and accuracy. If so, which magazine? What was the sample size? What limitations did the study authors point out? Are they transparent about questions that their research cannot address? Who funded the research? And did the researchers disclose any conflicts of interest?
It can also be helpful to research media coverage of a study, because in an ideal world, healthcare reporters and editors do their due diligence when deciding what to cover. Did any news outlets pick it up? WHO? What do the outside experts they interviewed about the research have to say? Keep in mind: Researchers have found that studies that can’t be reproduced (which basically means they’re bad science) tend to be cited and shared more than those that can.
“It can be difficult for medical providers, absolutely, to look at a study and say whether it’s reliable or not,” Oller said. “I completely understand why, for the layman, it’s even more difficult.”
3. Check how your research makes you feel
If you’re looking for your symptoms and you’re really stressed, that’s an immediate red flag. Instead of panicking, contact a real medical professional who can help you find answers.
“I will tell my patients, ‘If you notice that the research you’re doing is increasing your anxiety, then it’s time to call your family doctor and tell me about it,'” Oller said.
Patients also sometimes have the opposite problem, she noted. So they can spend time looking for reassuring stories or anecdotes that they use to try to feel better or ignore their symptoms.
“It could be a serious symptom that Is have to be looked at,” Oller said, “and they find something that says, ‘Well, that was nothing to me.’ So they’re like, ‘OK, well, that’s probably not something for me either.’
While you’re looking, do a gut check. Are you stressed or anxious? Are you trying too hard to push away your stubborn concerns?
4. Keep track of all the sources you find and want to discuss
As you go through your internet research, be sure to write down the articles or websites you visit. If you are interested in a particular study or article, save it. So when you go to your doctor, you bring a list of links that you can discuss together.
Oller said she sometimes had patients come to her to talk about a particular study they saw shared somewhere, but couldn’t remember where it was or what exactly it was claiming.
Your health care provider should be willing to discuss any research you bring up with you. If they’re dismissive – without taking the time to explain why they’re skeptical of certain sources, or carefully explaining why they don’t think they apply to you – maybe it’s time to seek a second opinion. Experts should recognize that research on patients can be a very good thing.
5. When in doubt, talk to a real health care provider
Ultimately, nothing beats visiting a real doctor, nurse, or healthcare clinic (in person or virtually!) to get your health questions and concerns answered. In fact, Oller said an easy way to tell if you’ve landed on a reputable health website during your search is that these sites tend to direct you to a health care provider. Credible websites are transparent about the limits of an online search.
“These sites are the ones that, at the end of any entry, say ‘Please speak to your primary care physician if any of these things seem true or if you have any questions,'” she said. “They are the ones who lead people to get the next assessment they need.”