The revenge of the cyberchondriac: why Dr Googles were right all along

New study claims turning to internet makes patients better at self-diagnosis

The internet-old warning not to turn into a Dr Google when sick has been challenged by a US study which claims searching the web helps patients reach the correct diagnosis.

The practice is linked to increased anxiety – or "cyberchondria" – but researchers from Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School suggest it may be less harmful than medical professionals believe.

Participants in the study of 5,000 people demonstrated modest improvements in reaching an accurate diagnosis after looking up symptoms online.

They also showed no difference in reported anxiety nor in abilities determining the severity of conditions.

"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," said study author David Levine, managing director of general internal medicine and primary care at the Brigham.

"I wondered: 'Is this all patients? How much cyberchondria is the internet creating?'"

Methodology of cyberchondria study

Participants were asked to read a short case vignette describing a series of symptoms and imagine someone close to them was experiencing the symptoms.

They were then asked to provide a diagnosis based on the provided information, look up the case symptoms online and offer a diagnosis.

Cases ranged from mild to severe, but included typical illnesses like viruses, heart attacks and strokes.

In addition to diagnosing a given condition, participants selected a severity level – ranging from "let the health issue get better on its own" to "call 911".

Study participants then recorded their individual anxiety levels.

"Our work suggests that it is likely OK to tell our patients to Google it," Mr Levine said.

"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."

Cyberchondria study limitations and next steps

In the study, participants were asked to pretend a loved one was having the symptoms described by the case vignette, and the authors admitted their response might have been different if they were experiencing the symptoms personally.

For the next phase, Mr Levine intends to investigate further the ability of AI to help people diagnose  their own condition correctly.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

The bio

Favourite book: Peter Rabbit. I used to read it to my three children and still read it myself. If I am feeling down it brings back good memories.

Best thing about your job: Getting to help people. My mum always told me never to pass up an opportunity to do a good deed.

Best part of life in the UAE: The weather. The constant sunshine is amazing and there is always something to do, you have so many options when it comes to how to spend your day.

Favourite holiday destination: Malaysia. I went there for my honeymoon and ended up volunteering to teach local children for a few hours each day. It is such a special place and I plan to retire there one day.

Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
Points to remember
  • Debate the issue, don't attack the person
  • Build the relationship and dialogue by seeking to find common ground
  • Express passion for the issue but be aware of when you're losing control or when there's anger. If there is, pause and take some time out.
  • Listen actively without interrupting
  • Avoid assumptions, seek understanding, ask questions
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