Do you ever turn to the internet for medical information? We bet you do. And a new survey shows that if you're going to the emergency room, looking up your symptoms can actually be a good idea.
Of course, it's not the right time to Google anything if you're, say, bleeding profusely from the head. But our ailments are often more ambiguous than that - perhaps it's a weird intermittent pain somewhere, or just some vague dizziness.
Doctors probably suspect that you looked up your symptoms before showing up in their office. But there's little systematic research on how our relationship with Dr Google might affect real-world interactions with medical professionals, especially in the emergency department (ED).
With that in mind, a team of Australian health researchers set out to survey a representative sample of ED patients in two clinics, St. Vincent's Hospital Melbourne and Austin Health. They gathered anonymous data from 400 participants.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers discovered that more than one-third of the adults did indeed consult the internet about their medical problem before attending the ED. In fact, 49 percent of the survey participants admitted that they searched for online health information regularly.
But even though we are usually warned against internet self-diagnosis because the information out there can be overwhelming and confusing, the study revealed that, according to the patients, a quick consultation with the net generally had a positive impact on their visit.
"Specifically, patients reported they were more able to ask informed questions, communicate effectively, and understand their health provider," the team writes in the study.
On top of that, getting an opinion from Dr Google also didn't reduce patients' confidence in the diagnosis they got from the emergency department doctor, nor was there an impact on whether they complied with treatment.
The researchers also assessed the participants' "e-health literacy" using a specially designed questionnaire, and found that those people who scored higher on this measure were more likely to have looked up their symptoms before presenting at the ED.
Which indicates that "those who are confident about internet-derived health information are more likely to seek it before they obtain professional assistance," the team noted.
Encouragingly, most of the sites visited and trusted by the patients were hospital websites, online encyclopedias and university websites, so it's not like these folks were getting medical advice from Twitter and random forums.
In fact, the main drawback appears to be psychological - 40 percent of the respondents agreed that getting health info from the internet did make them worried or anxious.
We also don't know what doctors think about such info-gathering before a visit, since this study focussed on patient responses,
Given the apparent positive impact for the participants, the team concluded that emergency department doctors should acknowledge and be prepared to discuss online health information with their patients.
So, if you know how to be smart about looking up health stuff online, are not going to be freaked out about it, and will still take a doctor's advice over your own 'research', it's probably okay to quickly check whether that stabbing pain in your side is appendicitis or not.
The study has been published in the Medical Journal of Australia.