Science Says Googling Your Symptoms When You're Sick Might Actually Be A Good Thing

When I first discovered WebMD, I remember feeling instantly terrified that the results I'd received from the symptom-checker were pointing to a horrifying disease. After just a couple of quick google searches, it didn't take long to convince myself that my simple head cold might be a precursor to some awful, incurable illness. If you've ever fallen into this trap yourself, you've probably wondered whether it's bad to google your symptoms when you're sick, or if it's actually not that bad of an idea. After all, if you plan on eventually consulting with a medical professional about your symptoms, maybe it's good to come prepared to the doctor's office, right? Well, that's exactly what the results of a new study are suggesting, so you might just be able to fall down all of the internet rabbit holes your heart desires.

For the study, which has been published in The Medical Journal of Australia, researchers gathered their data by distributing anonymous surveys to over 400 adults who, at the time, were waiting at a clinic to speak to a doctor about a health issue. The survey questions asked about any health-related internet searches the patients may have done prior to their clinic visit, as well as the impact they felt those searches had on their interaction with their doctor once they were able to sit down for their appointment.

Believe it or not, according to the study's results, googling symptoms beforehand actually improved the doctor–patient interaction for about 77 percent of patients in the survey. "Specifically, patients reported they were more able to ask informed questions, communicate effectively, and understand their health provider," the researchers wrote in the study. What's more, the research also found that consulting the internet before an actual medical professional didn't seem to make patients trust their doctor any less once they received a diagnosis. In other words, even when people do google their symptoms before speaking to a real doctor, it doesn't necessarily mean they trust the internet more than a real, living, breathing person with relevant, legit experience. It seems that, more than anything, googling symptoms just makes people feel a little more comforted and prepared.

However, it's worth noting that not all searches are useful searches. Remember when you were in high school and were only allowed to use scholarly sources in your research papers? It's best to go through a similar vetting process when you're searching for medical information about your symptoms online, according to Danielle Ofri, M.D., Ph.D., a physician at Bellevue Hospital and faculty member of NYU School of Medicine. "Safe bets are well-known medical centers, as their information is usually vetted," Ofri wrote in an article for The New York Times. "Avoid websites that sell products or offer any sort of freebies. Any cure-all that looks too good to be true….is too good to be true."

But what else can you do ahead of a doctor's appointment so you don't walk in feeling totally clueless? Back in 2011, Consumer Reports surveyed 660 primary-care doctors to find out what they wished their patients would do to get the most out of their appointments. The top result? Making regular, preventative checkups. "A primary-care doctor should be your partner in overall health, not just someone you go to for minor problems or a referral to specialty care," said Kevin Grumbach, M.D., professor and chair of the department of family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

According to Consumer Reports, the doctors' second-highest request was for general respect during appointments. Seventy percent of the respondents said that since they'd started practicing medicine, respect and appreciation from patients had apparently gotten much worse. So make sure to let your doctor know how much you appreciate their guidance during your next check-up.

Another great, more long-term strategy for preparing for doctor appointments is to become an expert on your own body. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, there are a few basic questions that almost any doctor will ask you when you come in to see them, and since they can apply to almost any symptom or illness, it's best to already have those answers ready to go to when you arrive at the doctor's office. Some key questions to consider include things like, "How long have you been experiencing the symptom?" and "Does anything seem to trigger it?"

An informational guide from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services also suggests coming to your appointment with a list of any medications you're already taking. If you take a couple of different supplements or prescriptions each day (keeping track of those daily vitamins is important, too), it might even be useful to bring all of these things with you to your check-up. "Some doctors suggest you put all your prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and herbal remedies or supplements in a bag and bring them with you," the guide explains.

Bottom line: There's not necessarily anything wrong with googling that weird bump on your toe, or whether it's OK that you're sneezing more than usual. Just make sure you follow up with a professional after the fact.