2016 has started with an interesting article in the Daily Mail called “'Cyberchondriacs' clogging up A&E after googling their symptoms and worrying that they're seriously ill”
Ironically this article was triggered by a ‘study’ published by a newly started private medical helpline in the UK called Dr Morton’s. This organization offers a phone call with a doctor “which typically takes less than 5 minutes” 7 days a week from 7am till 11pm for £60 ($88).
Their study looked at the top 10 health searches in the UK Googled before calling the GP. The conclusion drawn by Dr Karen Morton, the founder, was very curious and appeared to inspire the Daily Mail headline: “We fear the worst when we Google. This is proven in our data which show that we type pneumonia instead of chest infection and tonsillitis instead of sore throat. I believe this is one of the reasons why NHS GP surgeries are increasingly overrun.”
It seems a rather flimsy and self serving conclusion to draw that just because someone searches or types in a more serious symptom or condition then they must be very worried, and subsequently rush off to call or visit their GP or hospital emergency department.
We All Google Our Symptoms
The fact is consumers are going to use the internet and its power to search medical symptoms and conditions. The key is getting them to trusted and validated symptom checkers and reference material. As we have said before, nobody should be using random sites they find through Google to carry out a serious task like researching their symptoms or diagnosis. People should only be using sites that have been designed to do this job and have been validated. We couldn’t agree more with Dr Martin Saweirs’ quote in the article 'I am fully on board with empowering my patients to learn about and look after their own health, but I think this can be better and more safely achieved through reputable websites such as Dr Morton's or NHS Choices and not through the unfiltered abundance of information that Google often provides.' Rather than generating scaremongering stories about people who are blocking up access to hospitals and practices after googling before seeing their doctor, professionals should be guiding and encouraging their patients to use well designed and validated symptom checkers that are offered free to the public - like the Isabel Symptom Checker.
Validated Symptom Checkers Work
The Isabel Symptom Checker has now been available for over 3 years on the web and as an app. It is also the engine that powers the symptom checkers on many consumer health sites and hospital patient portals. We have found that patients are often entering complex queries and making very sensible use of the tool. To date we have not received any feedback from hospitals or patients that its use has caused inappropriate distress or unnecessary presentations at any healthcare facility. In fact, many organizations are now incorporating the Isabel tool into their consumer workflows to assist patients getting to the right venue of care!
This whole issue of cyberchondria appears to be a constant scare story which the press love to write about, encouraged by some doctors, to try and fight back against the growing use of the internet by patients. The medical profession needs to realize that this genie is well out of the bottle and a much more sensible approach would be to embrace the change and guide patients to using the right tools such as symptom checkers.
It was interesting to read the responses to the Daily Mail article as I would assume that there would be at least some people who had experienced what the study concluded but instead almost all the responses were from people who had found researching their own diagnosis to be extremely helpful and their doctors wanting. That tells you something!
Interested in learning more about the Isabel Symptom Checker? It's completely free and based on the tool doctors use: