Well Being

Ask Dr. Google: 1 in 3 Americans Turns To Internet For Diagnoses

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Screen shot 2013-01-15 at 8.28.56 AMAnyone who has ever turned to Web MD when they've had a weird throat tickle or Google images for guidance on a rash knows the pitfalls of attempting self-diagnosis. Hello, hypochondria! (clearly that rash is a vitamin deficiency and that tickle a rare autoimmune condition that only House could detect). But none of this stops us from asking Dr. Google about our aches, pains and possible rare diseases. A new nationwide survey from the Pew Research Center found one in three Americans turn to the web for help with medical diagnoses.

The survey, part of Pew's Internet & American Life Project, found nearly 81% of adults in the United States use the internet (in general). Nearly 72% of those who do said they go online for health information. And 35% said they've consulted the medical offices of Google, Bing & Yahoo specifically to figure out if they or someone they know has a medical condition.

We're not complaining. We do a fair amount of “service journalism” here, because blogs, websites and such can be great places to find initial information about health issues. There's danger in people relying too much on internet information about health —  a July 2012 study found using the internet to self-diagnose leads people to focus on illness symptoms rather than risk. But most people seem to realize this: 70% of online diagnosis seekers said they turn to a health professional when they have a serious health problem.

A little under half (46%) said the health info they found online led them to see a doctor in real life, and 40% said medical professionals confirmed their initial internet-research diagnosis.

Women were more likely than men to go online for health information. Online diagnosers also tended to be younger, white, affluent and college-educated.

The most popular place to start searching was, unsurprisingly, a search engine, which was the jumping off point for 77% of online health info-seekers. Thirteen percent said they began by going directly to a health site, such as Web MD; 2% started at a general info site, like Wikipedia, and 1% on a social networking site such as Facebook.

“Using a search engine is somewhat associated with being younger,” Pew reports. About 82% of online health info seekers age 18-29 say they used a search engine, compared with 73% of those ages 50 and older.

“Overall, this pattern matches what we found in our very first health survey, conducted in 2000, when just half of U.S. adults had internet access. Then, as now, eight in ten online health seekers started at a general search engine when looking online for health or medical information.”

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