Cyberchondriacs? Actually, Googling Their Symptoms Makes Patients More Informed | Opinion

For almost as long as the internet has existed, people have used it to diagnose themselves with life-threatening diseases. They're often mocked as "cyberchondriacs" by their peers.

But those who consult "Dr. Google" are better off than those who don't.

Internet-addled consumers diagnosing headaches as brain tumors or freckles as skin cancer are the exception, not the rule. The internet has democratized medical knowledge—and empowered consumers to be better, more effective advocates for themselves in the exam room. A mounting body of research confirms as much.

Four in five American internet users have searched for health-related topics, according to a Pew study. That makes searching for health information one of the most popular online activities, next to email and researching products before purchasing them. One in five people say the internet is the first source they consult for information about symptoms and conditions, according to a September 2019 UnitedHealthCare survey.

Contrary to popular belief, consumers can typically trust what they find online. The three fastest-growing online sources of medical information contain content written or curated by physicians. In addition, reputable government sites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health are among the most visitedon the internet.

Wise consumers treat the internet as just one source of medical information. They still tend to defer to the experts. A study from Sheridan College and McMaster University concluded that the quality of a person's doctor is more influential than internet research in determining whether one agrees with a recommended treatment regimen and sticks to it.

In fact, an informed person who comes to their appointment armed with research can be an asset to a doctor. Physicians today don't have the time or mental capacity to keep up with the ever-expanding body of medical knowledge. By next year, that body of knowledge is expected to double every 73 days. Focused researchers can consistently unearth studies their doctors haven't yet seen.

Informed people also make for more efficient appointments. About one-third of doctors spend an average of 15 minutes with each patient. If those people come prepared, with targeted questions about their symptoms informed by the latest research, then both doctor and patient can make the most of their limited time together.

Consumer-driven research pays off. Consider the story of Jenneh Bockari-Rishe, a California woman who spent years suffering from debilitating stomach pains. Her doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong.

Through independent online research, Bockari-Rishe discovered she had symptoms of endometriosis, a common but underdiagnosed uterine condition. She took that information to her doctor, who determined that she did indeed have the condition. She quickly received the proper treatment and has been symptom-free ever since.

Bockari-Rishe is hardly a cyberchondriac. She's a registered nurse.

Still, many doctors worry that online health research will encourage people to deviate from their expert advice. So-called "non-compliance" rates can run as high as 80 percent in some populations.

But people who conduct research into their own conditions tend to be more compliant with doctors' orders. Studies show that conducting online health research improves the doctor-patient relationship. Researchers at the University of Leeds found that online research made patients more comfortable with their doctors.

A Google search doesn't usually replace a trip to the doctor's office. But online medical research can empower people to take control of their health -- and help doctors deliver more targeted, more impactful care.

David Kopp is the CEO of Healthline Media.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.