Could that mole be melanoma? Is this cough just a cold? If you have ever gone online to try to diagnose yourself, your spouse, your child or a friend, you have plenty of company, a new survey confirms.
About 35% of U.S. adults say they have used the Internet to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have, find new survey results from the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Among adults who use the Internet to get any kind of health information, 59% admit to diagnostic sleuthing.
The telephone survey of 3,014 people, part of an ongoing project that started in 2000, was not designed to show whether such behavior is good or bad for health and peace of mind.
But it may provide the most reliable national data yet on online self-diagnosis, which is now a fact of life, says lead researcher Susannah Fox. The Web "is where a lot of people are starting" when they have medical questions, she says.
But it's not necessarily where they end up. "People are using the information they find to decide whether to see a doctor," Fox says. Most do: The survey found just one-third ended up handling the problem on their own. The survey did not ask whether the problems people tried to diagnose were serious or not.
But in a separate part of the survey, 70% said that the last time they had a serious health problem, they got information, care and support from doctors or other health professionals. About 60% got support from friends and family, and 24% got support from other people with the condition. Most of that support happened offline.
The fact that patients with serious concerns still consider doctors the top source of information is encouraging, says physician Ted Etyan, a Washington-based director of the Permanente Federation, part of Kaiser Permanente. "Ten years ago, we were worried we wouldn't be No. 1 - it would be the Internet."
But the best of both worlds is for doctors to be available to their patients online, through e-mail and websites, and to point them toward other trustworthy online resources, he says. Doctors should listen carefully when patients share their own hunches, no matter where they did their research, he says.
"Sometimes they don't get it right, but that's what we're here for," Etyan says.
In fact, the survey found that people who attempted a diagnosis online were more likely to have it confirmed than disputed by a doctor - 41% vs. 18%.
That suggests that few doctors are stereotypical technophobes who "roll their eyes and say, 'Stay off the Internet, there's nothing but junk out there," says Dave deBronkart, a cancer survivor from Nashua, N.H., who blogs as "e-patient Dave," and is co-founder of the non-profit Society for Participatory Medicine. The findings also may help dispel "worries that people are going to see stupid advice on the Internet and hurt themselves," he says, because "before they take any action, they check with a doctor."
The survey shows most people, 77%, still start online medical searches with a search engine, such as Google or Bing, rather than a specific health site (13%) or social networks such as Facebook (1%).
The quality of information that people find through search engines can vary a lot and "there are risks," including finding inaccurate or scary information, or missing the best sources, says Rahul Parikh, a pediatrician in Walnut Creek, Calif. But, he says, "I would encourage people to search more, rather than less," and to keep talking to their doctors about what they find.