Is Googling Symptoms a Bad Idea?

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The brand logo of Alphabet Inc's Google is seen outside its office in Beijing. Researchers found that more than one-third of patients consulted the internet before coming to the hospital. THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

Whether it's E. coli and salmonella infections, strep throat, or any other illness someone may suspect they have, many people turn to search engines like Google or health sites like WebMD to find their fate.

That's why the search phrase, "My symptoms are..." is a popular Google search among others.

While this approach can bring up some unlikely results—a toothache doesn't always mean mouth cancer—a team of Australian scientists found it might actually help. Published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday, the study showed that a search engine diagnosis might help patients enter the exam room more informed.

The researchers focused on 400 patients who the emergency room in two Australian hospitals. They found that more than one-third of the patients consulted the internet before coming to the hospital. These weren't first-time offenders either—49 percent of the patients said they consult Dr. Google regularly for health advice.

The patients felt that their internet searches before they went to the hospital actually helped in their meetings with a medical professional.

"Specifically, patients reported they were more able to ask informed questions, communicate effectively, and understand their health provider," the team wrote in the study.

The team also found that people who were "e-health literate" were more likely to search out information on the internet before coming to the hospital. They probably were able to feel more confident about the information they could find on the internet than those who weren't, so therefore, chose to use that resource.

"In addition, it was shown that searching does not usually reduce the patient's confidence in the diagnosis or treatment plan provided by the practitioner, nor is it associated with reduced compliance with these treatment plans," they wrote.

However, a 2014 study showed that around 70 percent of results are accurate, so patients shouldn't enter the doctor's office expecting what they found was correct. For conditions that were more rare, only around 30 percent of the online information was accurate.

In 2015, a study revealed that over 90 percent of web pages that discuss common diseases share the visitor's information with third parties, such as Facebook and Amazon. These third parties could use this information to tailor ads to the person based on that medical condition. This could lead to an embarrassing situation later on if the person receives an ad for a private medical condition while someone else is viewing the computer screen.

One downside of Dr. Google that this new Australian study found is that it could affect patients psychologically. They reported that 40 percent of the patients who used the internet to research their condition felt worried or anxious.