Why 'Dr Google' is bad for Norwich people's health

A blonde-haired woman types on a laptop

Do you rely on Doctor Google to diagnose your health conditions? - Credit: Pixabay

Norwich has been crowned with a dubious honour: people living in the city are the most likely in the UK to jump to the worst conclusions after Googling their health symptoms.

Most of us do it – if not for ourselves then for someone we love: we Google health symptoms and self-diagnose before we decide whether or not to see a doctor.

Are you guilty of arriving for a doctor’s appointment pre-prepared with a list of possible reasons for your ailment?

Do you self-diagnose in order to avoid a trip to your surgery? Or, like 37 per cent of people in Norwich, do you immediately assume the worst once you’ve spent an afternoon consulting Doctor Google?

(Guilty as charged).


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Picture the scene: you’ve been aware all day of a persistent twitch in your eye – at first it’s really irritating, then it’s slightly worrying and by the evening you’re convinced that something must be really, really wrong.

As you begin to scroll through the countless thousands of pages that immediately greet you when you type in your symptoms, you feel reassured: the NHS help pages say that such twitches are “very rarely a sign of anything serious”.

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Phew. Good news. So what are these non-serious reasons why might an eye still be twitching?

It could be, according to the NHS, down to stress and anxiety, tiredness and exhaustion, drinking caffeine or alcohol or a reaction to medicine.

At this point, it would be reasonable to stop Googling and accept the answer from the National Health Service which suggests that we should only seek help if the symptom persists for more than two weeks.

But no: why accept a reasonable answer when we can go searching for answers that are far more distressing?

The next search result suggests we may have blepharitis (inflamed eyelids), dry eyes, light sensitivity or an infection.

We should stop here, and we know it.

The next search result offers us hypochondriac’s gold when we discover that a twitchy eye MIGHT be a sign of Bell’s Palsy, Dystonia (an uncontrollable movement disorder), Parkinson’s Disease or Tourette’s Syndrome.

It could, in a vanishingly rare number of cases, be linked to a brain tumour.

What is the message that someone determined to see the worst in any given situation likely to take away from this research?

Will it be that they are probably absolutely fine or will it be that the Grim Reaper is standing on the sidelines tapping his wristwatch?

As we lose ourselves down a deep, dark rabbit hole of worst case scenarios we find ourselves Googling even more and becoming ever-more anxious which in turn leads to more symptoms and more Googling and…

At best, the internet can offer us an idea of what might be wrong with us and offer us an over-the-counter remedy we can pick up, at worse it can cause anxiety, unnecessary contact with health services and impact our day-to-day functioning.

Hands with long fingernails tap on a computer keyboard

Using an online search engine to diagnose your health issues can be bad for you - Credit: Pixabay

According to a new survey by vision care provider www.lenstore.co.uk , people in Norwich tend to be the most likely in the UK to decide that their health symptoms are a sign of something terrible.

Next on the list is Plymouth, then Leeds, Bristol and London.

Further research has revealed that up to a third of people in the UK have become convinced they have a life-threatening illness after Googling their symptoms.

The worldwide pandemic has worsened ‘cyberchondria’ as people race to research any symptom they may have to see if it is linked to Covid-19.

And equally, many people feel they should not ‘bother’ their doctor with their health problems or are they concerned about going outdoors during a lockdown (please call your surgery if you have health concerns - the NHS has stressed the importance of seeking help when it is needed).

More women than men use online tools to check their health and the age group most likely to check their symptoms online are those aged between 16 and 24 followed by those aged 35 to 44. Nearly half of us admit that using Google to research symptoms helps them to decide whether they need to visit a doctor or not.

Just as the public uses internet search engines to predict their own health problems, researchers are using Google Trends to measure interest in specific symptoms related to Covid-19 to gauge actual incidence of the disease.

In America, the research has shown that Google search interest in loss of taste, loss of appetite and stomach problems increased four weeks before a spike in Covid-19 cases in most states.

While the internet is often a good starting point for discovering what ails you, it shouldn’t necessarily be your final answer to diagnosing your symptoms – and if you Google ‘should I look up my health symptoms on Google’, the answer is fairly self-serving.

According to my search result, Googling symptoms can lead to an awful and debilitating condition called “health anxiety” which involves actually making yourself ill by worrying about already being ill.

It's enough to give you a headache (but is it really 'just' a headache? I better just check...).

A cartoon computer keyboard with a red 'virus' symbol next to the letter symbols

Is using an online search engine to look up your symptoms making you ill? - Credit: Pixabay

How to use Doctor Google safely

1)    Use trusted sites – it won’t come as a shock to you that you can’t trust everything you read on the internet. So stick to reputable websites such as www.nhs.uk and be particularly wary of sites that are selling supplements, food or health-related ‘miracles’.

2)    A survey published in the British Medical Journal found that the correct diagnosis was only returned as the top search result 34 per cent of the time on sites that are self-billed ‘symptom checkers’.

3)    If you are worried about your health always consult a pharmacist or your doctor.

4)    Try not to become anxious by what your internet search finds – while search engines can empower us with information, online research is no substitute for a trained professional’s diagnosis.

Factfile

* Just under 60 per cent of people in the UK Google their health symptom before consulting a doctor and 16 per cent see a condition go undiagnosed from self-diagnosis

•    People in the UK worry about their health an average of 1.6 times each week

•    Almost a third of people in the UK admit that Googling a health symptom makes them feel MORE anxious, with 22 per cent of people saying it has a negative impact on their mental health

•    Diarrhoea, confusion and anxiety are the UK’s most searched symptoms

•    Three in 10 of us would rather Google our symptoms to avoid putting pressure on the NHS, yet nearly the same percentage of people think Googling their ailments has a negative impact on their mental health

•    With more than 90 per cent of the overall search engine market share, Google receives around a billion health questions every day and answers 70,000 health inquiries a minute


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