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People who research their symptoms online understand their doctors better, finds study

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Researching symptoms online before going to hospital could make it easier to understand your doctor, experts say, but it might also be making you anxious.

A study has revealed more than a third of people use the internet to look up what might be wrong with them before going to hospital.

And research shows this makes most feel better about their meetings with medics and like they can communicate better with their doctor.

But at the same time, using Dr Google could be stoking fears of more serious health problems – some 40 per cent of people say it makes them more anxious or worried. 

Australian scientists studied 400 people who visited emergency rooms in two hospitals and say their results suggest doctors should be willing to discuss patients’ online research with them face-to-face.

People who use the internet to research their symptoms before going to the emergency department say they are able to ask their doctor more informed questions, according to Australian researchers

Researchers at St Vincent’s Hospital and Austin Hospital, both in Melbourne, surveyed patients in the hospitals’ emergency departments.

Some 34.8 per cent of the patients had researched their symptoms online before visiting the hospital, while 49 per cent admitted to regularly looking up health information.

People are often warned about self-diagnosing online because experts say it can be harmful for them to think they have a condition they don’t.

However, study author Dr Anthony Cocco said the research is generally helpful as long as patients go to reputable sites.

‘Research allows patients to clarify what they are feeling’ 

‘Researching allows patients to be able to clarify and sort out what they’re feeling,’ he said.

‘Most notably, they were able to ask more informed questions of their doctors and communicate more effectively.’

When questioned, a majority – 132 out of 195 patients – agreed that online searching improved how well they communicated with their doctor.

Some 155 of the 195 – nearly 80 per cent – said internet research helped them understand their doctor and ask more informed questions.


Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, the head of the Royal College of GPs, said last year people should research their symptoms online before seeking professional help.

She said doing so for minor problems could prevent people making unnecessary trips to the doctor.   

Instead they should treat themselves, look up their symptoms online or go to a pharmacist before phoning the GP. 

Professor Stokes-Lampard said: ‘We believe that up to a quarter of appointments could be avoidable or sorted out by another means.

‘Of course for many things you’ll still be phoning the GP and that’s fine – that’s what we’re here for.

‘But if just 10 per cent of people didn’t come and see their GP, but did one of those three things, that would make a huge difference.’  

Dr Google makes four in ten more anxious or worried 

However, Dr Google may not be so good for people’s mental health – some 40 per cent of the internet searchers said it had made them more worried or anxious.

But Dr Cocco said: ‘Obviously, anytime you’re unwell you’re a bit anxious. 

‘People coming into emergency are coming in on their worst day.

‘But certainly our research is not indicating that it’s leading more people to come into emergency.’ 

Younger people are more likely to look up their problems online before seeking professional help – 58 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds did it, compared to just 14 per cent of over-60s.  

And most people who looked up health issues used the top-ranked sites on Google, suggesting the information they read is reputable.

Doctors ‘would be reassured’ that patients do not doubt their advice 

And Dr Cocco added people do not seem to doubt their doctor’s advice because of what they read online.

Most people said their decision to accept the treatment is not affected by whether or not they did online research before visiting, the research showed.

Dr Cocco said: ‘I think that would be very reassuring for doctors.’   

He suggested doctors should be prepared to discuss online searches with emergency patients.

‘A lot of doctors are probably unaware of how much this is happening,’ he added. ‘I think we need to be openly communicating, saying to patients ‘have you looked into this?”

The team’s findings were published in The Medical Journal of Australia. 


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