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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Why Googling Symptoms May Not Be As Bad As We Thought?

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

They usually tell us not to open the internet when we have a problem, because our anxiety levels will skyrocket, but a study shows that this is false

If you’re a little hypochondriac you probably feel identified with this article. Be honest, how many times did your head, gut or arm hurt a little and when you searched the internet for your symptoms (for making sure and pure scientific reason) did you find that you were about to die or maybe you should have died by now? The headache could be due to stroke, gut to end-stage cancer, or arm cancer at the start of a heart attack.

Now, with the coronavirus, it is more than likely that in your history of the last months’ searches of the style have appeared several times: How can I distinguish a cold from covid-19? What are the symptoms of the disease? Can I get it if I touch a doorknob? Or similar. It is normal, since the pandemic has created social alarm in many people, due to overinformation. In most cases, the voice of reason that you have near you, be it a partner, family member or friend, suggests that you stop searching the internet.

But despite the widespread notion that Googling will only tell you that you have cancer, a new study in the United States has shown that looking for symptoms is not as bad as previously thought. Not only did the research participants reach better conclusions and were able to make an accurate diagnosis, but the search for symptoms also did not increase their anxiety levels, reports ‘Science Alert’.

Although many doctors complain that their patients visit them too frequently because the internet warned them that they were dying, anecdotes are not science, and that is why Dr. David Levine along with other colleagues decided to do some research about people’s search for symptoms. They recruited 5,000 patients online and asked them to review and diagnose a simple case study, rate their anxiety over the diagnosis, and suggest a grading option (from letting the problem fix or heal on its own to going straight to the hospital).

“The participants were then asked to use the Internet to search for information about the case and transmit their updated diagnosis, classification, and anxiety,” explained study sources. 

“The design of this research was intended to emulate the way a person normally interacts with the Internet: find information, form a preliminary conclusion, and then reshape a conclusion after doing the search.”

The team also recruited 21 primary care physicians at Harvard Medical School to verify that the researchers responded correctly to the cases. The average time participants searched for information on the Internet was around 12 minutes, and some participants changed their diagnosis and classification level after the search. Of course, they did not always get it right: the accuracy of the diagnosis before and after the Internet search was 49.8% and 54%, respectively.

However, the vast majority of the participants (around 85%) stood firm even after searching the internet, both for classification and diagnosis. Only 15% changed their opinion at some point. 9.6% changed from incorrect to correct diagnosis, while 5.4% did it the other way around. Similarly, 12.8% of respondents changed their ranking decision after searching the Internet, with roughly similar percentages in both directions: 6.6% changed from correct to incorrect classification, while 6.2 % did the opposite.

Although they weren’t experts in diagnostics, obviously, the conclusions weren’t as bad as the team had assumed they would be. In fact, participants’ anxiety about the result stayed exactly the same after Googling, and their confidence in their own answers was the same, too. Participants reported that, in general, it was a bit difficult to find useful information on the Internet and they had moderate confidence in the information found. Specialized health sites were the most useful sources of information, along with search engines, and a small portion of respondents rated social media as the most useful for making a diagnosis.

There are several limitations to the study: First, the participants were asked to pretend that a loved one had the symptoms, so their anxiety might be less than if they were the ones experiencing the illness. On the other hand, the results were based on a “correct” answer, and in medicine this is not always the case. Although research is not the last word on the matter, it seems that Googling might not be that bad, as long as you keep in mind that it is not infallible and you could be wrong in your diagnosis. It is best, therefore, to ask for a second opinion and consult a professional.

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