Why you shouldn't trust 'Dr Google'

Looking up symptoms online can trigger "health anxiety". [Photo: Getty]

With GP appointments hard to come by and the internet just a click away, many turn to “Dr Google” when feeling under the weather.

Millions of people look up everything from depression and pneumonia to diabetes and endometriosis on the search engine every month, statistics show.

While it may seem a time saver, a harmless headache could easily be mistaken for a brain tumour, while chest pain could be confused for breast cancer.

One doctor worries the rise of so-called cyberchondria leaves patients in a “psychological trap”, creating unnecessary anxiety and even stopping them seeking medical help.

Patients may be too self conscious to discuss issues like an STI face-to-face. [Photo: Getty]

“Health anxiety isn’t a new problem,” Dr Daniel Atkinson, clinical lead at Treated.com, said. “It’s likely been around for as long as we’ve known anything about medicine.

“But the internet and readily available access to medical information has, without question, amplified the issue in recent years.

“It only takes one rogue opinion to plant an idea and induce anxiety.”

Perhaps surprisingly, pneumonia is the most searched for health term, with an average of 2.24 million Google hits a month, research by Treated.com found.

In second place is depression, diabetes and endometriosis, with 1.5 million each. These are followed by anxiety, with 1.22 million searches a month.

READ MORE: Learning how to manage 'cyberchondria' — the constant urge to Google your health

Dr Atkinson admits having a wealth of wellbeing information at our fingertips has some advantages.

“It empowers patients to an extent, helping to inform them about what a problem might be and who is best placed to help them whether it be a GP, pharmacist, or specialist consultant,” he said.

More often than not, however, patients are left panicking something may be seriously wrong.

“Unreliable information or hyperbolic diagnoses are, unfortunately, very easy to find online,” Dr Atkinson said.

“Doctors are trained to assess and interpret symptoms, whereas the layperson isn’t.

“So it can be easy for someone to Google a symptom, read a worst case scenario of what it might be, and then, of course, this idea gets stuck in their head.”

While some may immediately rush to their GP for help, an “online diagnosis” could also leave them too anxious to seek a professional opinion.

READ MORE: Experts warn health wearables could fuel rise in tech-driven hypochondria

“In some cases it might create a psychological trap where a person is caught between two opposing notions,” Dr Atkinson said.

“One - that the symptom is a sign of an illness so serious the person is too afraid to go to a doctor for help, because they presume the worst.

“Two - that this is an overreaction, and the symptom is nothing and isn’t worth wasting a doctor’s time with.

“The longer this person doesn’t seek help, the more this anxiety can build up.

“Their rationale might be, ‘If I didn’t do something about it before, it’s probably too late to do something now’ and so on.”

A study of more than 700 people by St. John׳s University in New York found cyberchondriacs” felt even more anxious after checking their symptoms online.

READ MORE: What It Means to Have Hypochondria

Why anyone would trust the opinion of Google over a medically-trained doctor may sound bizarre, however, Dr Atkinson claims it could come down to a host of reasons.

“A patient might feel embarrassed taking time out of their doctor’s day about a problem that could turn out to be nothing,” he said.

“It’s much easier to Google something than to go through the time and effort of talking to a doctor’s receptionist, and then a doctor.

“But doctors don’t view this as a waste of time; just a person who is vigilant and concerned about their health.”

Some may also feel self conscious discussing “intimate” matters, like an STI or incontinence.

“Also, some people just don’t like doctor’s surgeries,” Dr Atkinson said. “Whether it’s due to a previous bad experience or fear of being diagnosed with something serious.

“For others, seeing a doctor about a problem makes it real. Googling a symptom isn’t a definite diagnosis.

“So people might be more inclined to Google first and see a doctor later because it means they can, in their heads at least, put off being ill for a bit longer.”

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Looking up symptoms online will only “fuel your anxiety further, leaving you more apprehensive before your appointment than perhaps you would be”, Dr Atkinson stresses.

“It’s possible Googling symptoms might convince you you can’t face the news and put you off going to the doctor altogether”, he added.

For those insistent on looking up what may be wrong ahead of seeing a GP, Dr Atkinson urges them to use legitimate sites, like NHS Choices.

“If you land on a page after Googling a symptom, take a look around the rest of the site,” he said.

“If it’s not professionally presented, full of ads or riddled with spelling mistakes, it’s likely to be a sign that it isn’t being maintained properly and isn’t as reliable.”

A 2008 survey of 500 people by Microsoft Research found 80% had searched for health information online but only three quarters checked the site was credible and up-to-date.

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