Patients Who Go Online to Self-Diagnose: Helpful to Docs?

October 19, 2012

Should physicians encourage patients to use the Internet to search their symptoms?

A few weeks ago, when I was still on maternity leave, my normal afternoon crept into an evening of exhaustion, body aches, and - slowly, but surely - a fever of 102. I felt like I was coming down with the flu.

I couldn’t get a nap in, as my baby wanted to play. So, like any concerned new mom, I called my son’s pediatrician and asked what I could do to keep the little guy from catching whatever I had: Should I continue nursing? Should my husband come home from work so I can quarantine myself?

The doctor gave good advice (take some ibuprofen, keep nursing, and monitor the baby’s temp), but my fever kept rising.

So I took to my iPad and started “Googling” my symptoms. Sure enough, they were associated with a very common diagnosis among new moms - one that my pediatrician hadn’t even warned me about.

When I called my OB/GYN and described my symptoms and what I thought my diagnosis was, he told me I was probably correct, prescribed me antibiotics, and told me to come see him the next morning. Within two hours on the antibiotics, I felt better: My temperature dropped back to normal and my aches slowly dissipated.

Thanks to my seemingly brilliant ability to “self-diagnose” I was able to treat myself (call a doctor, get a prescription) more quickly. And, in turn, my follow-up visit to my physician the next morning to confirm my self-diagnosis was quick and easy (which I have no doubt he appreciated).

Still, I wonder if most physicians would agree with what I did. There is some resistance to patients who use the Internet to diagnose themselves, namely because patients aren’t armed with the medical training to treat themselves, and may misconstrue symptoms. But as patient-centered sites like WebMD flourish, most physicians will, no doubt, some time or other, encounter more patients like me who embrace search engines as the first step to solid medical care.

This raises a couple of question: Are patients who “Google” their symptoms online and call their doctors being helpful or annoying? And is there a way that self-diagnosing, Internet-loving patients who Google their symptoms can make life easier for physicians? In other words, should physicians encourage patients to use the Internet?

Physician and technology enthusiast Joseph Kim warned that well-meaning patients can use online health information incorrectly when it comes to researching symptoms.

“Sophisticated patients who look up symptoms may find useful information because they can differentiate valid versus invalid health sources on the Internet,” Kim told Physicians Practice via e-mail. “Most patients aren't that sophisticated, so it makes the process more difficult. Also, patients often read misinformation or get led to believe misconceptions that circulate on the Internet.”

Kim says the best bet for patients - perhaps one a physician might even want to encourage - are moderated online forums where patients have virtual discussions that are reviewed and moderated by a group of healthcare professionals.

One example is HealthTap, a free online service for patients that offers answers to common questions by physicians.

Family physician Christopher Tashjian told Physicians Practice that patients who Google their symptoms can be helpful - sometimes.

“If I know the patient and they are cared for by me, I think it can be really helpful,” said Tashjian, via e-mail. “On the other hand if I don't know the patient, I find it hard to help them because I don't have a baseline.”

Personally, I couldn’t agree more! While I’m grateful for technology that allowed me to “diagnose” myself when I felt crappy and couldn’t figure out how a fever could come on so suddenly, when it comes to the final word, I trust my doctors who see me in person.

For more on this topic, including how to deal with symptom-search-happy patients, check out Physicians Practice Associate Editor Aubrey Westgate’s piece “Physicians, Patients, and the Internet.”