Sports Medicine Digest

The Sports Medicine Digest provides the latest updates from the NYIT Center for Sports Medicine as well as recommendations and advice to improve your performance and maintain your health in athletic pursuits.

Googling Symptoms. Good Idea?

Aug 20, 2018

QUESTION: Can I trust what I read online about my health? -Anonymous

ANSWER: Hallie Zwibel, D.O., Director of Sports Medicine, NYIT

The vast majority of Americans (over 80%) utilize the internet to access healthcare information. This is a valuable resource which patients have grown to rely upon to inform them about a platitude of healthcare issues. Some physician may worry that individuals are relying solely on online information and bypassing a doctor visit. However, the research has shown this is not true; over 90% of patients still turn to a health care professionals for a diagnosis. Therefore, patients are instead using this information to guide conversations with their physicians at appointments, not to replace them. As a primary care physician it is our role to guide our patients towards health. In this regard an educated patient as an asset.

The question though is can patients trust the health information from online resources. The answer is maybe. A recent study looked at the health information content on three of the most widely accessed sites WebMD, Wikipedia, and the Mayo Clinic. The researchers found that over 94% of the information on these websites contains citations; with the majority of sources being peer reviewed journals, non-profit /community organizations, textbooks, and academic websites. Therefore, the information in is for the most part credible. However, the study did find that the ease of readability was “difficult” for WebMD and the Mayo Clinic and “very difficult” for Wikipedia. With a third of Americans having basic health literacy or less, a significant proportion of patients may not be able to understand or may misinterpret the information provided.

A separate research team examined the “symptom checker” of various websites including WebMD. This function is advertised to give patients a diagnosis by having them input their complaints. WebMD was found to perform better than most of the symptom checkers analyzed.
However, the correct diagnosis was listed first only a third of the time and was in the top 20 possibilities less than two thirds of the time. This finding is disturbing. Patients may be shown potentially serious diagnoses when using these calculators which can cause significant
distress. Alternatively, patients who need immediate or urgent assistance may not seek care because of this tool. In practice I have seen both instances occur. However, most commonly my patients who have used the symptom checker of WebMD and other websites present with anxiety about a condition they often do not have.

Online health information can be an important tool if patient care if the information is credible AND used correctly. Unfortunately, at the present the second condition is often not met. “These resources are not going anywhere nor should they, however, they must be improved” Dr. Zwibel noted. “A potential diagnosis should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism” added Dr. Zwibel. Furthermore, the language and style in which the information is presented needs to be revised to accommodate individuals with less healthcare literacy who need it most.