The Truth About Self-Diagnosing on the Internet

Updated 01/14/17
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Let me guess: This morning you woke up with half a headache and some gas, did a little Googling, and now you're convinced you have a brain tumor. Trust me when I say I understand: You and your paranoid WebMD searches are not uncommon. "I would estimate that in a typical full day of seeing patients, about a third have searched the internet looking for answers by the time they see me," says board-certified internist Dana Corriel, MD, who refers to this phenomenon as "Google University."

It makes sense why people turn to the internet at the first sign of physical discomfort. It's the same reason we love ordering our beauty products on Amazon instead of buying them in-store, or getting lunch delivered via Seamless instead of making it ourselves: Convenience. "Think of the steps involved in getting a proper diagnosis," says Corriel. "You spend time trying to make an appointment, accommodate your schedule for it, spend the time on travel, and this before any of the aggravating factors involved in dealing with the office visit itself." Even doctors get it: "It's sometimes just easier for a person to Google their symptom."

Physicians also understand that when you don't feel well, it's hard to hold off until you can see a professional to confirm that you're not, well, dying. "For most of the patients that I see in the ER, they are fine; they are not having a big heart attack or stroke and can go home without worry," says board-certified family physician and ER doctor Larry Burchett, MD. "The #1 thing I provide is reassurance. I suspect that this is what most people are looking for when they go online—they want to make sure they are okay."

Empathizing is all well and good, but on a professional level, what do doctors really think about internet self-diagnosis? Is it helpful? Or is it just a cause of anxiety? Keep scrolling to find out the truth about self-diagnosing on the internet, according to physicians. 

The Pros of Self-Diagnosis

As it turns out, looking up your symptoms online doesn't have to end in catastrophe. "There are definitely pros to internet searching," says Corriel. "It can provide a quick answer to a rather simple question when used correctly. I've seen many patients come in with a correct 'hunch' based on a search."

Consider this recent interview, where Jimmy Kimmel spoke of correctly diagnosing a pain in his midsection as appendicitis, thanks to a Google search. (It's worth noting that he subsequently admitted that was the first time his doctor ever witnessed an accurate self-diagnosis.) In college, I once used the internet to correctly pinpoint a urinary tract infection. So it can be helpful. However, physicians agree that more often than not, the internet can provide you neither with an accurate diagnosis nor the reassurance you're seeking.

The Cons of Self-Diagnosis

As you can imagine, the disadvantages of consulting Google, as opposed to a live person with a decade of medical training, are manifold. They start with the fact that it can be difficult to verify where a website sourced its information. "You don't need credentials to add your two cents on to the web," says Corriel. "You don't even really need to be telling the truth. Anyone can write anything about any topic and get away with it."

This phenomenon is especially rampant on social media sites, like Facebook. "I've seen bad advice being given on innocent posts posing a question," Corriel tells me. "I see young moms posting questions about their children's ailments and getting completely wrong answers from random people."

Of course there are times that a cough can be one of the first signs of lung cancer, but is lung cancer the most common cause of a cough? Absolutely not.

Even when the information listed online is accurate, it's rarely specific enough to be helpful. "Each person has a different family history, has experienced different risk factors, and has his own social history, all of which contribute to the decision-making process a physician goes through," says Corriel. In addition, it's quite common for medical websites to list all the myriad diseases a symptom could mean, placing "common cold" next to "cancer," and this often leads to panic. "Of course there are times that a cough can be one of the first signs of lung cancer, but is lung cancer the most common cause of a cough?

Absolutely not," Corriel says. 

Beyond creating anxiety, misinformation from the internet can cause patients and doctors to spend extraordinary amounts of time and money on unneeded testing. "I had an elderly gentleman who read up on his symptom online and, after spending a long time explaining to him what benign ailment he actually had, he continued to insist, again and again, that this was not true because the internet said so," Corriel recalls. "In this world of growing insurance denials and difficulties getting tests covered, the doctor bears the brunt of ordering the unnecessary testing that results from these searches."

In less common cases, the internet can lead you to believe your ailment is less serious than it actually is. "If you had a website that said, 'Don’t worry about chest pain, it’s probably nothing,' that might be correct, but if a good number of people took that advice, eventually someone would die of a heart attack, clot in their lungs, or tear in their aorta—the serious life-threatening causes of chest pain," says Burchett. So the argument for seeing a real-life doctor works both ways.

The Bottom Line

Doctors agree: Google University absolutely contributes to hysteria. But Corriel admits that ultimately, its students are well-intentioned. "Think about it logically," she says. "It is our natural human instinct to worry about worst possible outcomes. We prepare for the worst in order to ensure survival. When you read about your symptom online, your mind naturally gravitates towards the worst possible scenario because you want to make sure you catch it early and survive." Logic and lack of education take a backseat to your will to live. As a result, Corriel says, "I get 20 and 30-year-olds coming in with complaints of a headache, asking for an MRI to rule out a tumor in the brain." 

When you read about your symptom online, your mind naturally gravitates towards the worst possible scenario because you want to make sure you catch it early and survive.

If you wake up with symptoms, can't get to a doctor right away, but want answers fast, there are smarter ways to go about seeking them. "I suggest you call up your internist," Corriel says. "A primary care doctor is always available for a quick visit or question on the phone. They cover general internal medicine and can answer most questions about the body." 

Don't have a regular doctor? In this case, "head to an urgent center near you, where a medically trained professional can ease your worry," says Corriel. Even if this seems like an overreaction, the most important thing is "to get a correct answer from someone who has been properly trained and can give appropriate advice based on your specific case."

Here's an idea: Instead of self-diagnosing on the internet, indulge your inner hypochondriac by binging on your favorite medical shows!

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House, M.D.: The Complete Series $111 $94
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Did you know that House is based on a real doctor? It's a badass woman named Lisa Sanders. After you've had enough Hugh Laurie, read her book, Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis ($12).

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Nurse Jackie: Season 1 $7
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This Showtime series is grossly underrated in my opinion. Who doesn't love a straight-talking nurse with a pixie cut and a Vicodin problem?

Grey's Anatomy: Season 1 $12
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When was the last time you re-watch Grey's Season 1? This weekend, it's happening.

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