Internet searches on conditions, symptoms, may not be a terrible idea after all

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  • Internet searches for health concerns may make it easier for patients to understand their diagnosis when they seek medical help
  • In a study, participants had to choose which action to take in a medical situation
  • The study found that internet searches by patients before and after visiting a doctor did not have negative effects

New research found that using the internet to search for health information was associated with small increases in diagnostic accuracy.

The study published in JAMA Network Open sought to examine whether patients who do internet searches on their symptoms will experience increased anxiety or increased accuracy regarding their diagnosis before visiting a healthcare practitioner.

Creating scenarios

The scientists performed a before-after survey with 5 000 internet users in the United States.

Participants were asked to report on their presumed diagnosis, triaging (the sorting of patients based on the urgency of their need for care), and anxiety regarding the case. Thereafter, they were asked to use the internet to research their case and provide an update on their diagnosis, triage, and anxiety.

Researchers created 48 validated scenarios of both common conditions like viral illness as well as severe conditions like heart attack. These were used for respondents to choose from. They were instructed to read about a health problem and imagine it happening to a close family member. Thereafter, they reviewed their chosen scenario and had to select from the following triage options the one they deemed best: 

"(1) Let the health issue get better on its own; the issue most likely does not require seeing a doctor. (2) Try to see a doctor within a week; the issue likely will not get better on its own, but it is also not an emergency. (3) Try to see a doctor within a day; the issue is urgent, but it is not an emergency. (4) Call 911 or go directly to the emergency department; the issue requires immediate attention."

The study also enrolled 21 primary care physicians from Harvard Medical School to validate the cases.

Dr Google bringing ease

The study found that there was no difference in triage accuracy found before and after the internet search. However, researchers observed an improved diagnostic accuracy.

The researchers say that the results of the study challenge the common belief among clinicians and policymakers that using the internet to search for health information is harmful. 

"We found that performing an internet search was associated with improved diagnosis. One potential reason for this disconnect is that over time, search engines have tried to direct people to higher-quality health information.  For example, several search engines have their own built-in health information curated by major medical centres, and in this study, almost half of the respondents believed such information was the most helpful," the paper reads.

The study also revealed that only a small percentage of people used social media or forums, which may have a lower quality of information.

Furthermore, the scientists found that searching the internet was not associated with the selection of a more aggressive triage option or with increased anxiety. 

Whether they surfaced on the internet or not, about three-quarters of participants were able to identify the severity of the situation and when to seek care. They were able to identify severe cases that needed healthcare services.

"Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to 'Google it'. This starts to form the evidence base that there's not a lot of harm in that, and, in fact, there may be some good," says corresponding author Dr David Levine, in a press release.

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