Beware “Dr. Web” and the Dreaded Google Self Diagnosis

by Tera Tuten on November 21, 2013

Ever since America at large discovered the convenience of the Internet, people have been using it to research everything from recipes to real estate listings. Add to that, we’re a society that leans a bit paranoid when it comes to our aches and pains–and it certainly comes as no surprise that health concerns are one of the more popular search topics on the Web.

A 2013 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project revealed that “Dr. Google” seems to have a thriving practice indeed, with 59% of U.S. adults surveyed stating they’ve used the Internet to look for health information. Of that 59%, a full 35% admit they’ve gone online specifically to try and diagnose a condition they themselves or someone else has.

Out of that 35%, there are specific characteristics that indicate an individual is more likely to turn to the Internet for diagnoses. Those are as follows:

  • Female
  • Caucasian
  • Younger age
  • Holds a college degree
  • Income over $75,000


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The good news about all this amateur medical research: Most of these self-diagnosing surfers do follow up their searches with a visit to an actual doctor, as 46% noted that what they found on the Internet led them to believe they required medical attention. Surprisingly, a good portion of those (41%) reported their MDs concurred with their findings.

While this news may sound good to most medical practitioners, “Dr. Google” can be a problem for both professionals and the patients they treat. While the Web can be a convenient place to start when puzzling out what ails, health professionals should be aware of the potential issues of self-diagnosis in order to properly educate or direct their patients.

Aside from the obvious– people can literally make themselves sick with worry at the myriad of information they find!–here are a few of the dangers that might not be obvious.

Self-diagnosis often lacks ability to discern subtleties that seasoned medical professionals can pick up on. Patients should be informed that a healthcare specialist knows what questions to ask to determine whether symptoms better correspond to one diagnosis or another.

Self-diagnosis often puts the patient/medical professional relationship off on the wrong foot. Trust is a cornerstone of good care, and undermining a professional’s diagnostic position–even if no insult is meant–can have negative results.

Self-diagnosis lacks objectivity. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s all too simple for many people to forget when concerned about their own or their family’s health. It’s easy to over-diagnose when overwhelmed with emotion. Therefore, it is crucially important to point out that a professional can look at the whole picture with a cool–and trained–head.

A layman can fixate on certain symptoms–most likely the ones that cause discomfort or concern–and miss other, more crucial, ones as a result.  This can happen frequently in the case of psychological disorders, in which some symptoms don’t bother or even register with the affected individual.

Non-trustworthy “medical” sites abound. A self-diagnosing surfer can start out on a trusted site (such as WebMD) and, while going deeper into research, inadvertently land on a site that is non-scientifically based, biased, or designed to peddle a particular product.

As with most research that’s done online, searches done in the arena of health care and concerns don’t necessarily have to be “all good” or “all bad.” The Web is certainly an okay–and, let’s face it, irresistible–place to begin one’s process of understanding a specific health concern. As a result of this accessibility, part of a health professional’s job now should include routinely checking in with patients to make sure they aren’t going overboard with self-diagnosis. Encourage your patients to always make a visit or call to a medical professional if you are experiencing symptoms that cause concern, no matter what “Dr. Google” prescribes.



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