Harvard researchers have found that using the Internet to look up symptoms does not increase patient anxiety and in fact, may help improve diagnosis.
You are feeling bad and before you know it you are rushing to your computer to find the source of your symptoms? You’ve probably been told this was a bad idea however researchers at Harvard are proving otherwise. The professional website JAMA published the results of a study showing that this reflex is actually quite beneficial. ‘Patients come to me because they’ve looked something up using Google search that made them think they may have cancer,’ says David Levine, the study’s author. ‘ Then I asked myself, ‘Do all patients do that?’ And to what extent does the Internet create cyberchondria?” The term refers to the anxiety caused by these Internet searches, as a modern type of hypochondria.
A more accurate diagnosis
To find out, he decided to do his own research. He recruited 5,000 participants who were asked to pick out a card with a list of symptoms. Then they had to imagine that someone close to them was suffering from these symptoms. They made an initial diagnosis and then had access to the Internet to seek more information and make a second diagnosis. At the same time, the researchers asked them to rate their anxiety levels. The latter did not change during the experiment, proving that cyberchondria is not based on these Internet searches alone. On the other hand, the scientists found that the diagnosis was slightly more accurate when people used Google search. “Many medical professionals think it’s a bad idea to use the Internet to investigate a symptom; this provides evidence that it’s not,” said Dr. David Levine in an article in The Guardian. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he adds, “in fact, it is actually a good thing.”
Artificial intelligence, the future of medicine?
The author of the study wants to go even further and explore the ability of an artificial intelligence to diagnose patients. “This next research will use an algorithm trained with all the resources available on the Internet,” he explains. Today, many scientists are working on creating new applications which could one day make doctors obsolete.