Should you 'Google' your symptoms?

More than 60 percent of Americans find information about their health online before they decide whether or not to see a doctor. Perhaps even more disturbing, a 2011 survey from Wolters Kluwer Health found that almost half of doctors use Google, Yahoo, and other general search engines to diagnose, treat, and care for their patients.

Why this reliance on the Internet for health information? It all has to do with easy access. Patients worry about being sick, while doctors worry about time constraints and being able to provide quick answers.

In a fascinating new study, Virginia Kwan, a psychologist at Arizona State University, found that patients searching diseases on-line are more likely to think they have them if their symptoms are listed consecutively.

According to Kwan, it's difficult to say whether it's good or bad to “Google” health information.

“Like most people, I feel the need to have more health information to make an informed choice,” Kwan said.

But Kwan added that she believes physicians should be the ones to help patients put health information in context and make the final diagnosis.

“Our findings suggest that lay people may not be accurate in judging their medical risk based on information found online,” she said.

This is in keeping with my own experience in private practice, where patients come to me every day with symptoms and potential self-diagnosis based on information they found on the Internet.  Sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes it’s not, and it is up to me to help them sort through it.

I also believe that physicians are best served by other sources such as medical journals, conferences, consultations with colleagues, and of course our own clinical experience.

One final point – not all web sources are the same. University medical centers like Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins tend to be well vetted. Information from Medscape tends to be accurate, and for physicians, a service known as Up to Date can be very helpful.

But my favorite source is, of course,

Dr. Marc Siegel is a professor of medicine and Medical Director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a member of the Fox News Medical A Team and author of The Inner Pulse; Unlocking the Secret Code of Sickness and Health.