Doctors Really, Really Want You to Stop Googling Your Symptoms

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Photo: Cheng Xin/Getty Images

Let’s see if any of this feels like a familiar process: Say you have a stomachache. You plug “stomachache” into Google and scroll through all of the information on gas and indigestion and other run-of-the-mill causes. And then you keep going, and find yourself reading about ulcers and gallstones and appendicitis, comparing your symptoms to what you see onscreen. Come to think of it, your stomach does feel tender to the touch, and maybe you are feeling a little dehydrated. Never mind that you had week-old leftovers for dinner — you don’t want to be messing around if this turns out to be cancer. And look, there’s a news article about a woman who thought her pregnancy was a months-long stomachache until she had the baby; suddenly, you’re doing frantic period math.

There’s a term for this: cyberchondria, first coined in a 2001 BBC article and later adopted by researchers studying how the internet fuels health anxieties. And there’s plenty of it going around — a 2013 Pew survey found that just over a third of U.S. adults have turned to the internet to help them figure out a health issue, while Google noted in a blog post earlier this summer than around one percent of its searches are on medical topics. But as psychologist Mary Aiken wrote in Quartz yesterday, all of that Googling has consequences beyond your own stressed-out psyche: On a broader level, it’s overburdening the health-care system, diverting doctors’ time and resources to investigating all of the minor bruises and colds that don’t actually need medical attention.

“For a number of reasons, most medical professionals aren’t too happy about the self-diagnosis trend,” she wrote. “It isn’t simply a matter of loss of control or an undermining of their authority through online medical searches — it can mess with the diagnostic process, because the results can suggest rare or morbid conditions to patients, which in turn can prompt the appearance of new ‘symptoms.’” And then you call your doctor’s office and make an appointment, just to be sure those symptoms don’t add up to any of the things you think they might. Better to run each possibility by the doctor, just to play it safe. “Patients arrive at offices and clinics with a ‘Google stack,’ as it’s sometimes called: a pile of print-outs from the online research they’ve done that has led them to form their own amateur medical opinion,” Aiken wrote.

And much of the time, those opinions are based on bad info — a study published last year in BMJ concluded that most online symptom checkers hit on the correct diagnosis less than half the time. Bottom line is, you’re probably fine. There’s that saying doctors have: When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. On the internet, it’s zebras galore.