Googling Symptoms Improves Patients' Experiences In The ER, According To A New Study
Doctors might not be stoked, though.
New research published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) has found that Googling health-related questions has a positive impact on patients' experience in emergency rooms.
The Victorian researchers surveyed 400 people who presented to Melbourne emergency departments over four months in 2017 and found 49% of patients were regularly searching the internet for health information.
Of the patients surveyed, 35% had searched the internet for information on the specific problem they visited the ER for.
The researchers assessed the experience of patients using a "doctor-patient relationship" scale and found that 68% of patients who had googled their symptoms believed that it helped them communicate more effectively with their physician.
Dr Anthony Cocco, a medical intern from St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne and one of the study's co-authors, told BuzzFeed News that googling symptoms seems surprisingly beneficial for a lot of patients.
"We thought it would have negative effects or things like that but, interestingly, it was mostly a positive experience," he said. "When we combined all our measures together as one net score, it was about 77% of patients having a positive experience from their search overall."
Looking up symptoms online helped patients ask more informed questions of their healthcare provider and better understand medical jargon when it was used.
Patients who searched their symptoms also didn't appear to become too cocky in their own medical knowledge and lose confidence in their physician's diagnosis, or reduce their compliance with treatment plans.
However, Dr Juanita Fernando, a patient care and medical education research fellow from Monash University, told BuzzFeed News she is sceptical about these positive results.
"Dr Google is the bane of most physicians' existence," she said. "People tend to google their symptoms and for whatever reason they look at the most catastrophic outcome from their symptoms.
"Then they go into the physician's office or emergency armed with this material to argue what they're suffering from."
The MJA study did not survey the physicians about their experiences with patients who googled their symptoms.
Fernando believes that when patients google their own symptoms, it can often add to the workload of doctors in the emergency room.
"[Doctors] are really time poor and they have to not only diagnose the patient's condition – if there is a condition – and manage that condition, but then also discuss with the patient why their findings are not relevant. So it actually adds to the job, it makes it harder than it needs to be."
Cocco found that patients in the study appeared to be searching their conditions well and making smart decisions.
"Most of the searches were for common emergency room presentations, so chest pain, abdominal pain, back pain, headache — bread and butter things that we see in emergency every day that we think patients should come in to be assessed for. So that was definitely reassuring."
Both Cocco and Fernando said that the medical tips people are getting and the decisions they make depend heavily on the websites they visit.
Cocco recommends state-run websites with independent information from doctors, such as Victoria's Better Health Channel, that help people understand features of symptoms such as chest pain "that should prompt you to come to emergency versus a GP".