Study: Searching Your Symptoms on Google May Lead to a Better Diagnosis

Searching online on a tablet.

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Key Takeaways

  • New evidence suggests that using online sites to help research and diagnose a physical condition may help, rather than harm, the individual.
  • Although additional research is required, consulting "Dr. Google" did not increase anxiety levels or affect the individual's ability to judge the severity of the condition.
  • Study authors say that encouraging patients to research the condition on their own may help lay the groundwork for better medical understanding.

Cyberchondria: You're probably familiar with the concept—the idea that researching symptoms online will lead to anxiety and wildly inaccurate diagnoses. What's that mild headache I feel? Well, according to all these websites, it certainly must be dangerous.

Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School wanted to see if data really supported the assumption that "Dr. Google" leads to extreme conclusions about our health, and found evidence to the contrary.

"When folks use the internet to search for some sort of health issue, they end up actually getting a little better at diagnosing," study author David Levine, MD, MPH, MA, physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, tells Verywell. In addition, the study found little evidence that people experience cyberchondria due to the use of Google; neither anxiety levels nor "triage abilities"—or judgment of the severity of the condition and what actions to take next—were altered.

The study was published in JAMA Network Open in late March.

Still, only half of the participants correctly diagnosed the case, so it would be unwise to abandon all healthcare for self-diagnosis, Levine adds. "I have had patients walk in who are just absolutely determined that they're dying because Google told them they're dying," he says. "And I have stories quite on the other side as well, that patients have been really thoughtful and learned a lot about what could be going on with them."

What This Means For You

When trying to figure out a health problem for you or someone you know, always consult a medical provider—especially if your symptoms are debilitating. But using the internet and health information sites to learn more about your symptoms may not leave you as panicked as previously thought. Make sure to seek out thorough, reputable information when learning more about a potential health condition.

Participants Became Better At Diagnosing

For the study, 5,000 U.S. adults were recruited to complete a survey between the first two weeks of April 2019. Participants were randomly given a case of someone experiencing a series of symptoms from a selection of 48—ranging from common (e.g., virus) to serious (e.g., heart attack) physical illness, and told to “please read the following health problem, and imagine it were happening to your close family member.” 

Using their judgment, participants reported their diagnosis, triage, and anxiety two times—once before an online search, and once after. On average, people spent about 12 minutes searching the condition before responding a second time.

Example of a Case

Participants were asked to diagnose the following case (an example of meningitis):

  • Headache for 3 days
  • 18-year-old male
  • Has fever 102
  • Neck stiff
  • Light bothers him  

In addition to their before and after judgments of the cases, participants were asked to report perceived health status, chronic diseases, and last visit to the doctor of the person in question.

In general, researchers found, before and after the search:

  • Slightly improved diagnostic accuracy (49.8% vs 54.0%)
  • No difference in anxiety, triage abilities, or confidence in responses
  • Most participants (85.1%) did not change their diagnosis after the search
  • Of the 14.9% that changed their diagnosis, almost 10% changed from incorrect to correct, while 5.4% changed from correct to incorrect
  • Both before and after, about 75% of participants were able to identify the severity of the situation and when to seek care

In addition to these findings, three demographic groups were generally better at diagnosing, in the following order:

  1. Those with perceived poor health status (especially when they had more than two chronic diseases)
  2. Women
  3. Adults 40 years or older

Participants also reported having a slightly difficult time finding useful information on the internet, and they moderately trusted the information they found. They reported that the most helpful sources were search engines and health specialty sites. Only 1.5% rated social network sites as most helpful.

More High Quality Information

While only about half of patients diagnosed the case correctly, the slight increase in accuracy after an internet search may be for various reasons.

One may have to do with updated technology. "Over time, search engines have tried to direct people to higher-quality health information," the authors wrote. For example, many search engines display health information curated by major medical centers.

Another important factor to consider, the authors write, is baseline knowledge. After all, only a small portion of participants changed their answers after the internet search, with only about 10% self-correcting. This previous knowledge can be accrued through experience, such as with lower perceived health status, more comorbidities, and older age. Women, in particular, might be more precise at diagnosis because "they, in general, experience more health care and may make more decisions for their family to seek out care."

Study Limitations

The study has several limitations, and will require more research, Levine says. The fact that 76.4% of respondents were White, for example, represents a stark demographic difference that may be getting in the way of accurately measuring how different groups respond.

Having participants engage in imaginary situations, too, might not give the full picture. "I think one of the most important limitations is that this is essentially a simulation study," Levine says. "The people who participated didn't actually have the disease process happening to them."

It's also difficult to know the psychological impact of searching online. After all, the authors mention, only a small fraction of respondents changed their diagnosis or triage after the search. They may just be looking for information to justify the initial diagnosis, rather than considering other answers.

What This Means for the Physician-Patient Relationship

For a long time, Levine says, the general advice has been to stay away from online sites when trying to figure out what you're going through. "The motivation for the study was really that doctors often tell their patients don't use Google," he says. Even governments have done that, he adds, referencing governmental ads that say googling your symptoms will only instill fear and cause you to run to the emergency room.

In his experience as a physician, Levine says, when his patients are not freaking out after Googling their symptoms, they seem informed and more involved. "I think if anything, it activates patients and engages them to think deeply about what's going on with them," Levine says.

While we still absolutely need doctors for diagnosis and treatment, Levine adds that this study shows that using Google may not need "to be shunned quite as much as we have in the past."

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Levine DM, Mehrotra A. Assessment of diagnosis and triage in validated case vignettes among nonphysicians before and after internet search. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(3):e213287. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.3287

By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.