I am guilty of diagnosing medical conditions using a combination of WebMd and Google. I’ve diagnosed myself with everything from chronic fatigue syndrome to a bruised kidney (neither of which I ended up having). It’s a habit I’ve begun to break given that only 2/5 of the medical sites studied by a group in the UK gave accurate information.
However, a recent study shows that I’m certainly not alone in searching for health information online. A new report issued by the PEW Internet Project and highlighted in The Washington Press says that looking for health information is the third most popular task on the web, beat out only by email and internet search engines. Reports The Washington Post, “Eight out of 10 Internet users report going online for health information, even if it’s only occasionally.”
The associate director of PEW, Suzanna Fox, told The Washington Post that there are multiple reasons that patients are turning to the web. Medical information is easily accessible via our computers, or via mobile phones if we’re on the go. Fox added “In many ways, the Internet has become the de facto second opinion,” she said. “People go online to prepare for a doctor’s appointment – or recover from [it].”
However, some users are far less likely to search for health information. As it turns out, only 50% of African-Americans, Latinos, adults over 65, individuals with disabilities and households with less than $30,000 annual income use the internet for health information. The study did not give reasons why these groups were less likely to turn to the web.
So is it detrimental that we’re going to “Doctor Google” for medical advice? Quite possibly. When Eric Horvitz and Ryen White analyzed search results around the web, they found that “in contrast to the actual prevalence of life-threatening illnesses, the proportion of websites listing them as primary causes is significantly higher. For example, while brain tumors occur in less than one if 50,000 people, 25% of the documents showing up in a web search for ‘headache’ point to a brain tumor as a possible cause.”
In addition, 75% of us don’t check the date or source of our health-related search results. You could be reading something that is out of date or written by someone who has absolutely no background in health. Keep these facts in mind next time you search for health information (since we’ve established that most of us are looking for it) and save yourself some anxiety.
Photo thanks to Alan Levine