Health IT

Dr. Google is no substitute for the real thing: Most self-diagnosers still see a physician

woman computer

Medical Googlers abound in the U.S., and the latest survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project is giving us a new look at who they are and what they’re doing with the information they find online.

Pew surveyed 3,014 U.S. adults (on landlines and cellphones) to learn how they sought information about their last serious health issues. The results were compiled into the Health Online 2013 report (PDF).

Seventy-two percent of respondents were deemed “online health seekers,” which means they reported that they looked for any kind of health information online in the past year. Almost 60 percent of those were also “online diagnosers,” which means that they had gone online specifically to figure out what medical condition they or someone else had. That equates to about 35 percent of all U.S. adults, according to Pew’s calculations.


Here’s where it gets interesting. Among the online diagnosers, slightly more than half said they consulted with a medical professional about what they found online. Forty-three percent said a medical professional confirmed or partially confirmed the information they found online, while 19 percent said they consulted a medical professional and he did not agree or could not come to a conclusion.

Of course we can’t assume that everyone who claimed her doctor backed up his suspicions was truly able to “diagnose” herself accurately using just information from the Web (I say her because women are more likely to be online diagnosers than men, according to the survey). We also don’t know that all of those physician diagnoses were accurate. And Pew reiterated that the objective of the survey was to measure the scope of how online health information is being used, not the quality of that information. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see that about 80 percent of the self-diagnosers reported being at least partially confirmed by their doctors.

But physicians still trump the Internet: 70 percent of respondents said they saw a healthcare professional the last time they had a health issue.Pew survey

Turning away from online diagnosers and back to online health seekers, the survey found that just as many of them were looking for information related to someone else’s condition as were looking for information for themselves. “This trend has not changed significantly since we first began tracking it in 2000,” the authors wrote in the report. “More than half of health searches are conducted on behalf of someone not touching the keyboard.”

A whopping 80 percent of respondents said they began their online health inquiry as a general search engine, which gives Web-based health companies a reason to stay up-to-date on changes to Google’s search algorithm. Only 13 percent said they started a site that specializes in health information.

Here’s another note for Web-based health companies: Pay walls seem to deflect nearly everyone looking for health information online. One in four of them surveyed said they hit a pay wall at some point, but only 2 percent of those said they paid. The rest went looking elsewhere or gave up their searches.

Aside from an online diagnosis, online health information seekers reported looking most often for information on certain medical treatments and procedures, weight loss and health insurance. While one in five of them reported consulting online reviews of particular drugs, doctors or hospitals, less than 4 percent said they had actually posted online reviews themselves — about the same number that did so back in 2010.

So, although the Internet is becoming an increasingly important tool for the modern-day healthcare consumer, Pew noted that the majority of healthcare and conversation is still taking place offline.

[Photo from Flickr user CarbonNYC; graph from Pew Research]

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