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Looking up health symptoms online less harmful than thought, study says

That throbbing headache just won’t go away and your mind is racing about what may be wrong. But Googling your symptoms may not be as ill-advised as previously thought.

Although some doctors often advise against turning to the internet before making the trudge up to the clinic, a new study suggests that using online resources to research symptoms may not be harmful after all – and could even lead to modest improvements in diagnosis.

Using “Dr Google” for health purposes is controversial. Some have expressed concerns that it can lead to inaccurate diagnoses, bad advice on where to seek treatment (triage), and increased anxiety (cyberchondria).

Previous research into the subject has been limited to observational studies of internet search behaviour, so researchers from Harvard sought to empirically measure the association of an internet search with diagnosis, triage, and anxiety by presenting 5,000 people in the United States with a series of symptoms and asked them to imagine that someone close to them was experiencing the symptoms.

The participants – mostly white, average age 45, and an even gender split – were asked to provide a diagnosis based on the given information. Then they looked up their case symptoms (which, ranging from mild to severe, described common illnesses such as viruses, heart attacks and strokes) on the internet and again offered a diagnosis. As well as diagnosing the condition, participants were asked to select a triage level, ranging from “let the health issue get better on its own” to calling the emergency services. Participants also recorded their anxiety levels.

The results showed a slight uptick in diagnosis accuracy, with an improvement of 49.8% to 54% before and after the search. However, there was no difference in triage accuracy or anxiety, the authors wrote in the journal JAMA Network Open.

These findings suggest that medical experts and policymakers probably do not need to warn patients away from the internet when it comes to seeking health information and self-diagnosis or triage. It seems that using the internet may well help patients figure out what is wrong.

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Source: The Guardian, 29 March 2021


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