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‘Dr. Google’ may not be so bad after all, researchers say

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Boston — Turning to the internet to self-diagnose health problems, also known as using “Dr. Google,” has gotten a bad reputation in recent years. Sometimes that’s deserved, but the results of a recent study led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital suggest the practice may have some benefits.

The researchers asked 5,000 participants to read a brief description of a medical case, including symptoms. The participants were then asked to provide a diagnosis based on the information provided, and again after they searched for information on the internet.

The cases spanned from mild to severe, but described everyday illnesses such as viruses, heart attacks and strokes. The participants also were tasked with providing the next steps in their hypothetical cases (e.g., calling 911) and recording their anxiety level while studying the cases. The researchers found that after the participants used the internet, they were “slightly better” at diagnosing their cases. However, they demonstrated no differences in their ability to discern next steps and reported no changes in level of anxiety after accessing the internet.

“Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to ‘Google it,’” researcher David Levine 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.”

 

One limitation, the release notes, is that the participants were asked to pretend a loved one was having the symptoms described in the case.

“It isn’t completely clear that people would behave the same way upon experiencing symptoms themselves,” the release states. “Additionally, the authors note that this study is not representative of all people who use the internet for health-related searches.”

The study was published online March 29 in JAMA Network Open.

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