The right way to google your symptoms

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Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Is googling your symptoms a good idea or a bad idea? One way to find out is to google this question. Type “googling symptoms” into Google’s search bar, and you’ll be confronted by a slew of headlines like “Doctors really, really want you to stop googling your symptoms” and “Here’s why googling your symptoms is a terrible idea” and even “Googling your symptoms is more dangerous than cancer itself.” In seconds, you will understand that googling your symptoms is a terrible thing to do and that you should stop immediately. Still, about 1% of all Google searches, which corresponds to millions of searches, are related to medical symptoms.

But it isn’t true that there’s no upside to googling symptoms and health questions. Google is a powerful information tool, and we should make it work for us when it comes to our health.

The reality is that the harm of googling symptoms has been hyped up so much that we’ve lost sight of whether there are ways Google can help us. Our concept of how people use Google to answer their health questions might even be somewhat skewed. For example, we tend to think of it as something people do to understand their own symptoms, but research indicates that at least 50% of people who google symptoms and health questions are doing it on behalf of someone else.

Google might be a useful tool to help guide people in their interactions with providers, but if, and only if, we know how to evaluate the information we find and monitor our emotional responses to it.

What we know (and don’t know) about googling symptoms  

Most people have the experience of being curious or concerned about a symptom and googling it. But the results don’t just depend on the symptom and the search terms. Whether we determine that our headache is a migraine or a brain tumor also depends on our level of anxiety going into the search, our prior experience with these symptoms, and the degree of our overall medical literacy.

There are often concerns that googling symptoms leads to “cyberchondria,” which involves misinterpreting normal bodily phenomena as serious illness as a response to information garnered online. The term also refers to the phenomenon of searching the web excessively for health-related information. Cyberchondria can also involve persistent worrying spurred on by reading unsettling information online, and some people become so concerned by things they read on the web that even subsequent reassurance from a doctor that nothing is wrong doesn’t make them feel less anxious. In these cases, people sometimes go on to seek third and fourth opinions on what turn out to be relatively minor health concerns.

But how much do we really know about what motivates people to google their symptoms and what actions they take as a result? Less than you might think. A Pew survey from 2013 found that about 35% of people have at one point searched symptoms online with the purpose of making a diagnosis. Of these people, about 46% decided to visit a healthcare provider subsequent to searching and 38% decided they could take care of their health issue at home.

Looking at these numbers, it may at first seem that many of these people are deciding not to seek care when they should. But the authors of the Pew survey itself point out that the data they collected don’t necessarily support this conclusion. The study was not designed to determine whether using the Internet had a good or bad outcome on health but rather to get an estimate of the overall frequency with which Americans utilize the web to research health questions. As the survey authors note, people have always tried to make decisions about whether to seek health care on their own, and the internet may just be another tool they’ve added to their toolbox. We don’t have enough information to understand whether googling symptoms is leading to an increasing trend of people not seeking care when they should.

More than half of people who said they used the internet to get more information about medical conditions were searching on behalf of someone else. This is important because it’s a type of internet health research that many physicians encourage. Healthcare providers often note that engaged caregivers who independently seek out information ask better questions and do a better job of making sure that nothing important is neglected.

The Pew poll and other similar research efforts give us some good data on how people use the internet for health research, and it does seem that the news is not all bad. Yet even with all this great information, there are still unanswered questions. For example, do we know anything about how often people who google symptoms end up not seeking care when they should compared to how often people make that decision without Google? We also don’t have a consistently reliable estimate of how often googling symptoms results in unnecessary visits to the doctor, diagnostic tests, or procedures. These questions are mostly unanswered, and without better information, it’s hard to say for certain just how much harm googling symptoms actually does.

Combatting cyberchondria

Despite some of this missing information, it does seem that googling symptoms can lead to heightened anxiety. This may in turn lead to unnecessary medical care, with patients pressuring their doctors for specific treatments they read about, or unknowingly skewing the way they present symptoms to be more in line with the conditions they read about online. But instead of disposing of the whole concept of googling health issues because of this, perhaps we can look at ways the search tool can be a useful part of our overall approach to our health, instead of a panic-inducing one.

For this, we turn to the world of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a standard treatment for anxiety and has been shown to be effective for cyberchondria and hypochondria more generally. For severe cases of diagnosed anxiety disorders, it’s always best to see a therapist. But since googling symptoms may lead to heightened worry even in the absence of a diagnosable anxiety disorder, here are a few tips we can borrow from CBT to help prevent unpleasant worries:

  1. Before you google anything health-related, evaluate your state of mind. Write down the thoughts that are going through your head. If your thoughts are panicked and catastrophic, walk away from the computer for a few minutes and re-evaluate.
  2. Understand your own motivations for doing the search. If words like “reassurance,” “worry,” or other terms that are related to a highly emotional state come up, give yourself a few minutes before initiating a search.
  3. Write down a few different ways you could word your search. What you put into the search box dictates what comes back. What many people don’t realize is that what they put into the box often reflects how they feel and what they already think. Play with different formulations of the search phrase to see if you can pick one that’s more neutral. You could also try clearing your browser and using a separate, private window to do the search so the results aren’t skewed by your previous search history.
  4. Give yourself a time limit. You can always come back to it later if you need more information, but breaking up the time spent on this can ensure that you’re not getting pulled into a state of high anxiety without realizing it.
  5. Always understand the limits of online health information searches. They are just one method of taking care of your overall health. You should always continue to seek other sources of information that are useful to you, including trusted healthcare professionals, acquaintances, and family members.

While these methods may seem like common sense, it can be difficult to put them into practice in the midst of a worrying situation. Being disciplined about pausing and stepping away from the computer can make all the difference between a healthy Google search and one that becomes frantic, counter-productive, and unsettling.

Despite what many might say, Google is a powerful tool with great potential for health and medicine, if we go about this the right way. One entity that understands this is Google itself. The company has partnered with world-class health and medical institutions, such as Harvard and Mayo Clinic, to improve the accuracy and usefulness of online symptom searching. One thing is for sure: giving up and telling people not to google their symptoms is counterproductive and may even be a missed opportunity.