We asked hundreds of medical professionals about asking Dr. Google, searching the internet for medical advice, and we even asked what they used to help their own practices.
Here is what they said:
What tips would you give to patients who feel the need to search their medical symptoms online before calling a healthcare provider?
Try to avoid doing it. Computerized algorithms can’t give you accurate information about your symptoms. There’s no was to distinguish the severity. It can lead to increases stress or anxiety.
I am not opposed to patients investigating their symptoms to form a differential. It is actually helpful at times because they are not partially familiar with potential diagnoses that I may discuss with them. The problem that often arises is that, at times, patients mistake their 30 minute online search as a replacement for my years of medical training. My tip for patients that feel the need to search their symptoms is this: understand that a search engine cannot perform proper evidence-based analysis of the totality of your symptoms. It cannot perform the task of creating a differential diagnosis that is personal to you. Recognize that it is generic information. And most importantly, it is ok to ask questions, but trust your doctor and respect their training.
Be careful. It’s ok to be curious about symptoms and look for possible medical conditions associated with those symptoms. The problem is when patients try to diagnose themselves or don’t follow up with a doctor. I would encourage patients to contact a doctor rather than rely on the internet.
Everyone is going to do it, but you have to understand that the devil is in the details. While websites can provide a lot of useful information, it's the subtle findings that can make all the difference from something simple to a lot more complex.
The first thing that patients should do is to make sure they call their primary care provider to ensure if any underlying health issues may be contributing to current medical symptoms. Online diagnoses is far from the reality and can create unwanted hypochondria.
Online information can be incorrect, outdated, or not provided by a reputable source. When taking your personal health into consideration, make sure you see a healthcare provider first!
Search general symptoms and don’t diagnose yourself with the first thing you read on webmd.com. If you are stable and feel okay, do some research on your symptoms and if you’re concerned then call your healthcare provider. A lot of doctors are doing online visits so a quick phone call can help if it’s appropriate.
Always be cautious about what you are reading and make sure the source is reputable. If there are no references in the article, I would take the information presented with a grain of salt.
Use evidence based resources and websites rather than open posting on social media.
Patients need to keep in mind that so many factors come into play when narrowing down a diagnosis. Past medical history, family history, exposure, risk, and even lifestyle can increase or decrease our clinical suspicion for something. Doing a Google search to get an idea what could potentially be causing symptoms is reasonable, but can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and paranoia after being presented an overwhelming and broad range of possibilities. If you are lucky enough to have access to your provider quickly via phone or video call, take advantage of it! They'll be able to gather all of the information from your history and give you a tailored response that's made just for you!
I completely understand the reason why, we're all searching for information and patients may want to speed up a diagnostic process or research possible treatments. However, information on the internet is not reliable and can lead to over- or under-diagnosis which can incite anxiety and fear or delay true evaluation. What you can spend time doing which is very helpful to your doctor is writing down detailed information about your symptoms, when you feel them, for how long, anything that makes them better or worse. It's also helpful to keep a running list of medical problems, surgeries, and current medications and dosages. Doing this is infinitely more helpful to doctors than researching your own symptoms.
Searching for your symptoms can be very overwhelming on the internet. It can definitely cause increase anxiety and stress when you are probably already not feeling great. The best thing to do is contact your healthcare provider or seek medical attention. I’m a Nurse Practitioner in the Emergency Room. It’s my job to diagnose and treat your medical problem. If you are worried about something, seek a healthcare providers advice! That’s what we are here for anyways!
Its okay to seek more information so that you may ask more questions and be more prepared. But many health conditions have similar symptoms and vague descriptions for the purpose of NOT diagnosing you on the spot. Every condition manifests differently in different people. There are tell tale signs, but it usually doesnt end up being the condition originally googled.
Try to refrain overall if possible. Patients are likely to notice generic symptoms that can have numerous differential diagnosis; which leads to uncertainty. Try to reach out to your doctor by calling the clinic or sending an email. If you have an urgent symptom or concern, go to your nearest urgent care or emergency department.
Your doctor knows you and has more information about you than google. Google is very uni-lateral, where-as healthcare providers are trained to look at your health information over a period of time to better have an idea of something else that might be going on.
If you must search, use reputable sources like the CDC, Mayo Clinic, and sites that end with .org
What are some things to avoid?
Be careful when getting advice from the internet. Make sure you use verified medical sights and actual journal articles as your sources instead of blogs written by non medical professionals or conspiracy theories. Try to talk to your doctor first before looking on google. The more you read about a disease or symptom the more symptoms you will have.
Self diagnosing and self medicating based off of the general "treatments" you may find online. Even something as simple as a red eye. No eye doctor recommends using Visine or Clear Eyes, EVER. So please never use anything, evem if it is over the counter unless you have spoken to a medical professional.
I often see bad information on the internet, and then by extension have women come in to a visit very confused about a diagnosis that does not fit them at all. For example, 2 common problems in women's health are endometriosis and PCOS. These disorders have completely different symptoms, but I see them treated as the same online, which is completely inaccurate. Women's health information is especially treacherous online as many sites propose "quick fix" supplements or medications that are ineffective, a total waste of money and time spent suffering before getting a real treatment!
Avoid concluding that only the most extreme possibility is true. The strong likelihood is that everything isn’t life-threatening or terminal. Before getting stressed or upset, call your doctor.
Avoid assuming the worst case scenario until you speak to a licensed provider. It's normal to feel scared or paranoid in the moment, but a provider will be able to give you the reassurance, answers, and credible information that you need.
Avoid clickbait or sensationalized articles. If you find an article, look at the date to see that it relevant, also look up who the author is and what their credentials are to try to establish if this author should even be an authority or making clinical medical recommendations? Is this person really the person you trust to give you medical advice? Ask if the person could have ulterior motives for speaking up about a subject.
Reading news articles/information from non-credible sources.
Avoid overthinking about your symptoms until you have a proper diagnosis by your provider. Avoid websites such as webmd or medscape because even correct information may be misinterpreted or misdiagnosed by using those. Avoid reading reviews on procedures/surgeries because 9/10 people who suffer from a potential risk will post about it online, where as 1/10 who have a completely successful procedure will post online. This increases anxiety and panic prior to a procedure.
Avoid self diagnosing by using a internet search. You could end up downplaying a life threatening condition!
Avoid opinion pieces and obtaining medical/health information from authors without valid degrees/credentials.
Do not diagnose yourself with the first thing you read off of WebMD. In fact, don’t diagnose yourself at all based off of what you read online. If you search your symptoms be mindful that a symptoms of heartburn can give you a search result of cancer. I’d research then provide your doctor with insight into what you think may be going on.
Avoid purchasing products from questionable or non-reputable sites. Many products like computer glasses and skincare products sold on Amazon may not be not FDA-approved.
Avoid looking for generic symptoms such as fever, cold, sore throat, etc. Avoid seeking advice online from social media and seek advice from their main doctor.
It is important to keep in mind the open access that is the WORLD WIDE WEB. Anyone can post anything without validation. I recommend avoiding medical chats, forums, and threads that attempt to offer advice and treatment options. Avoid non-accredited/non-validated medications or supplements with claims of success. If you have to search for more than 15 minutes to find more understanding or additional diagnoses, contact your medical provider for a professional opinion.
You want to avoid posts from social media and personal blogs. Using national hospital websites, University websites (.edu), or governmental websites (.gov) tend to be the most truthful and helpful.
Self diagnosis. Self medication. Self treatment. Sites featuring celebrities instead of doctors.
Do you ever use credible sites or journals when diagnosing symptoms? If so, which do you use?
Yes. There are many credible online resources that doctors use daily. Depending on the specialty and indication, being diagnosing or management. UpToDate is always a great resource for me.
Regularly. I frequently use peer-reviewed studies from the American College of Emergency Physicians. But you have to remember - not all studies are equal. Although it's in the literature, doesn't mean it's the best study out there - it could have a small study population in a poorly designed trial. Not only are peer-reviewed journals articles important - but finding those that are done with proper methodology is key.
Uptodate, Cochrane Systematic Reviews, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, Johns Hopkins All Childrens Hospital Clinical Pathways, Childrens Hospital of a Philadelphia Clinical Pathways, and So many others!
The CDC has really great information online about sexually transmitted infections. Bedsider.org is a resource I use all the time for discussing contraceptive options, patients can read about benefits of different methods, side effects, and take quizzes to see which method may be best for them.
For me as an optimetrist I mainly use the help of the Wills Eye Manual which is a compilation of different eye diseases and disorders, their differential diagnosis, things/symptoms to look for and potential recommended treatments. Also industry journals like the American Academy of Optometry, American Academy of Ophthalmology, etc.
As a resident we refer to text and articles then websites in ENT. However we do use websites to help with staging of cancers. As a medical student when I had primary care rotations UpToDate was a great resource to help with diagnosis/workup/management. However I do not recommend that the general public use this website, as it can be misinterpreted if you do not have a medical knowledge background.
Mostly medical journals that are peer-reviewed if it's something more rare than normal.
Yes! NEJM, ACOG, Up To Date, etc
Any other recommendations related to Dr. Google?
Most credible websites were designed for healthcare professionals to use. You need some medical education to utilize them effectively. Apps and websites such as MD calc, pepid, Epocrates all are very useful but only if you know how to use them. Start by talking to your doctor first before creating more stress and anxiety
I think it is important to have patients educate themselves and hopefully the major professional organizations (AHA, ACC, WHO, CDC, AMA, etc etc) continue to our our campaigns with large-based recommendations. But it can be dangerous to provide more access to sites where patients can attempt to diagnose or evaluate their symptoms because again, they are not able to use the years of medical training it takes to take small pieces of information to make the big picture (diagnosis) make sense. That should be left to the medical provider.
There are many reputable options to seek medical help and direct interaction with a qualified physician is the best way. You can use services like telehealth, phone calls to your primary physician, or reporting to your local emergency department. Your health is valuable - give it the care it deserves! Personal blogs, social media posts, and self-help sites have a place for information - but when it comes to getting help - nothing beats an personal interaction for your specific needs.
Vision is one of your most important senses! Before diagnosing with Google, be sure to contact your eyecare provider first.
Don’t get lost in diagnosing yourself on google. Google will give you the most searched and usually the most fatal result. Also times are tough and very scary, it’s understandable that you’re feeling on edge. Just set up an appointment with a doctor if you feel unwell. Stay safe.
Always consult your doctor if you have any questions!
Most importantly, trust that your healthcare provider is eager to talk to you and answer those questions you may have. If you have an article you’d like to ask questions about, bring it in during your appointment so you can discuss it keeping in mind that just because something has been published doesn’t always mean it is good evidence! Also, if you aren’t sure about a treatment plan, ask if there is any evidence to support it! Many common diseases have established clinical guidelines which are updated regularly and your provider team would love to share those resources with you.
Take everything you read online with a grain of salt!
Come prepared with what YOU are feeling and a list of questions for the doctor. If you have been googling and found something worrisome, but the doctor does not address it, bring it up! We don't know what you've seen online but we'd love to discuss your fears or concerns with you.
Don’t be scared to ask you healthcare provider a question! I promise we have heard it all. It’s so much easier and safer to just ask us versus self diagnosing and researching your symptoms on the internet!
Ask your licensed medical professional FIRST. We are here to answer your questions and educate because WE CARE!
I personally think online research about your specific symptoms or attempts to self-diagnose is harmful to your well being. I think that the internet should be used if at all by the general public to gain a basic knowledge of medicine if they are interested. This may be in the form of articles, social media post by physicians, or other trust-worthy sources. This again should not be used for personal context as medicine/diagnosis/management is different for each individual.
Be sure to use sites with .org .gov or .edu more often than not these sites have credible information with citations.