Americans turn to Dr. Internet before doctor's office

You can't stop coughing. Your forehead feels perilously warm. Could it be a run-of-the-mill cold, or something more sinister? After furiously typing symptoms into Google and scouring WebMD for answers, the despair seeps in.

Diagnosis: Tuberculosis.

Prognosis: Almost certain death.

Disclaimer: You are not a doctor.

Many of us–59 percent of American adults with Internet access, to be precise–use the Web to look up health information. According to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project released this week, one in three adults turn to the Internet to diagnose a medical condition.

The educated patient

While some hypochondriacs might use the Internet to confirm their worst medical fears, Dr. Michael Blum says he and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center appreciate patients who try to learn more about their symptoms or conditions.

“Most clinicians feel that an educated patient is far better, that it's much more productive to work with someone who understands their disease early,” says Blum, the hospital's chief medical information officer. Blum also teaches medicine and cardiology at UCSF.

And few patients have tried to school him using reams of Internet printouts from sketchy medical sites–that's only happened once or twice.

Pew noted that people throughout history have tried to diagnose and treat their symptoms at home before turning to a doctor. The Internet has made that research easier, and perhaps more accurate.

Doctor knows best

But we realize that we're not doctors. According to Pew's research, 70 percent of Americans turn to a physician with questions about a serious health issue, even those who research their conditions on the Web. For many (41 percent of those surveyed), a doctor only confirms what the Internet already said.

In the wonderful world of Yelp, where every local business garners at least a handful of reviews and the most popular establishments rack up hundreds, health-care providers net a surprisingly small amount of online feedback. Pew reported that some 4 percent of Internet users have written reviews of their doctors or other health-related service providers. Pure conjecture: maybe you don't want the world to know why you were seeing Dr. Spaceman and exactly how he misdiagnosed you.

Once our diagnoses are confirmed, many of us are turning to the Web to find peers or confidantes to share medical information and anecdotes about similar health issues. Blogs and forums where people can share their personal stories and trade tips on managing their illnesses have been and remain a small but constant online presence; one in four people surveyed said they read about someone's medical issues in the last year.

App-ifying your health

As more Americans turn to the Internet for health information, health-related apps have proliferated.

At this year's International CES in Las Vegas, we saw apps and gadgets that let you track your food intake, monitor your blood pressure, and measure your heart rate. This data will be incredibly useful to physicians over time, Blum says.

“It's very exciting to see people get more engaged and get involved with the data,” Blum says. “I see more people tracking their blood pressures, their weights, tracking what they're eating. People come in with the data and graphs or spreadsheets or reports. That's actually really helpful.”

Blum says he's waiting for the day when the data we collect on our smartphones can be imported into our medical records, creating a more complete picture of health.

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