The pitfalls of researching symptoms online

The proliferation of healthcare technology is beneficial in a number of ways. Platforms such as electronic health records, practice management software and telemedicine platforms have all helped streamline physician workloads and enhance communication between physicians and patients, improving outcomes as a corollary. Additionally, healthcare information is now widely available online. Hospitals, government agencies and independent healthcare organizations all have websites containing comprehensive health information.

Statistics show that this information is being harnessed widely. According to a 2014 study from Pew Research Center, a majority of U.S. adults now have internet access, and among that majority, many have used online tools to research certain diseases, symptoms and other health concerns. The number of people doing this, according to the survey, stands at roughly 72 percent. Furthermore, platforms such as smartphone apps have rendered this information even more accessible - Women's Health reported that smartphones are used to research health-related concerns by around half of all people who own these devices.

While more information is generally a positive thing, the extensive availability of health information online has led to a phenomenon that psychologists have dubbed "cyberchondria", an article from Women's Health explained. The term refers to any kind of health anxiety individuals experience when they acquire health information independently online, as opposed to from a qualified physician.

As stressed, while knowledge is indeed power, there are a number of reasons why extensive health research online, without the supervision of a qualified medical professional, is ill advised. Here are some of the most compelling arguments:

1. Diagnosing an illness is a nuanced process
To put it simply, most people are not physicians. There is a reason why medical professionals need to study for a number of years to become qualified - making an accurate diagnosis is a nuanced endeavor, with multiple variables to consider, Psychology Today explained. Consequently, a patient may research his persistent headache online and arrive at the conclusion that the headache is symptomatic of a brain tumor, while ignoring the multiple other conditions and variables that could be responsible. Only a qualified doctor is able to do this with great competency. In essence then, self-diagnosis often leads to the wrong conclusion, which in turn can be problematic for not only a patient's physical health, but mental health as well. The most effective first strategy to dealing with illness, therefore, is to visit a physician.

2. Online information isn't always accurate
As detailed in an article from Women's Health, it isn't always easy to verify whether health information found online is accurate. While government sites, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are invariably trustworthy, other sources are less likely to be informed by balanced research. Prime examples include sites such as Wikipedia, as well as any health-based forums where any user is welcome to offer advice. Receiving inaccurate information can again lead to unnecessary worry or stress for patients. Conversely, individuals may receive information downplaying certain symptoms, when in fact they are seriously ill. Again - the best first step for individuals feeling unwell is to visit a physician.

3. Emotions can hinder objective reasoning
Oftentimes when patients research symptoms online, anxiety, fear and other emotional responses can impede balanced judgment, leading to misinterpretation of information. CNN interviewed a physician, Dr. Natasha Burgert, who elaborated on this common issue.

"For most intents and purposes, when you're looking for online health information, it's about yourself or a family member. When you're looking through that lens, it's very hard to keep emotional distance. So you can read about a diagnosis that either makes you very scared or calms your fears -- and that's the path you'll continue down, whether it's correct or not," she explained.

Emotions can therefore lead to anxiety and heighten the risk of misdiagnosis. Seeking objective and balanced guidance from a doctor eliminates that problem.

4. The process can heighten anxiety in general
As argued by Women's Day, while most people will research symptoms online seeking reassurance, in many cases the opposite occurs. For example, returning to the headache example, while this is indeed a possible symptom of cancer, it is also indicative of myriad other conditions, ranging from benign to serious. It is common, though, for individuals to focus only on the possible worst-case scenario, heightening anxiety. Indeed, the source referenced statistics which found that many of those who seek health information online - around 50 percent - experience a worsening of anxiety afterward. Visiting the physician first, therefore, can curtail unnecessary worry.

5. It can damage patient-physician relationships
As detailed, physicians are extensively educated. While it is true that no physician is immune from error, it can be safely assumed that most doctors will be able to offer a more accurate diagnosis than a website. Consequently, when patients research online and become convinced that they have an illness, it indicates a level of mistrust toward their provider which can hinder working relationships between both parties, Psychology Today explained. While the source stressed that many physicians respect patients who actively look to improve their levels of health literacy online, it can become frustrating when patients assume they know more. To succeed, physician-patient relationships should feature mutual discussion and a high level of trust.

Online education can be beneficial
Despite the drawbacks outlined above, it is imperative to state that online health research isn't exclusively a negative thing. Research can be helpful at improving patients' health literacy, meaning that they will be more adept at understanding when potential health problems arise. Online research becomes problematic when it is conducted in lieu of seeking medical help from a physician, or when it is trusted more than the advice provided by a doctor.

Philadelphia Magazine interviewed Thomas Jefferson University Hospital-based psychiatrist, Rajnish Mago, who elaborated on this important point.

"The Internet is a tool," he explained. "You can use the tool appropriately or you can misuse it. I don't think people should diagnose themselves, but they should use the internet to become educated."

Kevin McCarthy's picture

Kevin McCarthy

Industry News Editor

An avid traveler and news junkie, Kevin covers a range of topics from healthcare technology to policy and regulations. As a former journalism student, he enjoys finding stories relevant to small practices and is passionate about keeping them informed. Before joining NueMD, Kevin worked for Turner Broadcasting as a Programming Intern where he conducted legal research and contributed to editorial content development. He received his bachelor's degree in Communication from Kennesaw State University and currently serves as the Industry News Editor at NueMD.

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