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Turning to ‘Dr. Google’ may not be as anxiety-inducing or misleading as believed, study finds

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    TORONTO, Ontario (CTV Network) — Have you found yourself Googling your symptoms in an attempt to soothe health-related anxieties, and then worried that you were going to accidentally misdiagnose yourself and make those anxieties worse?

Well, according to a new study from the U.S., turning to “Dr. Google” does not make a person’s assessment of their symptoms less accurate, or worsen their anxiety regarding their health.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open on Monday, found that patients having Googled their symptoms actually led to a slight improvement in diagnosis once they were in a medical setting, contrary to the common concern that the internet can lead patients down the wrong path.

“Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to ‘Google it,'” Dr. David Levine, a corresponding author and physician at the division of general internal medicine and primary care at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, said in a press release. “This starts to form the evidence base that there’s not a lot of harm in that, and, in fact, there may be some good.”

In order to measure this phenomenon, the study recruited 5,000 participants. These participants were given a hypothetical set of symptoms, and were asked to first give a potential diagnosis on the spot, all while imagining “someone close to them was experiencing the described symptoms,” the release explained. Then, they were told to do some Googling regarding the symptoms, and come up with a second diagnosis based on their online research.

The scenarios they were given ranged from descriptions of mild illnesses to serious medical issues, including viruses, heart attacks and strokes. They also spanned four different triage levels; cases where people should call 911 for emergency care; cases where patients should visit a doctor within a day, but doesn’t need to rush to the hospital; cases that require medical attention within a week; and cases where the issue will resolve on its own and likely won’t require a doctor.

Participants were asked to record which level of medical attention they believed the cases required, and then also reported on how anxious they had been during the process.

The average person does not get any better at triaging — understanding which medical services are needed — after this exercise, the research found, but their diagnoses did get slightly more accurate following their consultation with the internet, increasing by around four per cent.

Their reported anxiety also did not significantly change after Googling the symptoms.

One of the limitations to this study is that participants were asked to pretend they were Googling on behalf of a loved one, and it’s unknown if their anxiety or accuracy would be affected if they were experiencing the symptoms themselves.

The results aren’t necessarily what researchers were anticipating. Levine said in the release that one of the things that inspired the study was how often patients come in with misinformation from the internet.

“I have patients all the time, where the only reason they come into my office is because they Googled something and the Internet said they have cancer,” he said. “I wondered, ‘Is this all patients? How much cyberchondria is the internet creating?’”

Cyberchondria is a term that refers to increased medical anxiety created by the internet.

But while misinformation from the internet can be troublesome, Levine is planning a new study to see if artificial intelligence can help patients more than a quick Google will.

He said they would be training a generalized artificial intelligence algorithm on open-source text, including sites like Reddit and Twitter, to see if the AI could provide more accurate answers.

“Can AI supplement how people use the Internet?” he said. “Can it supplement how doctors use the Internet? That’s what we’re interested in investigating.”

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