Pew Center reports spike in people who diagnose health problems on Internet

Posted: Feb. 2, 2013 5:56 pm Updated: Feb. 16, 2013 9:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Some patients come to doctors looking for answers, but others believe they've already found solutions online.

Nathan Seaman, a family physician at Quincy Medical Group, recently had a patient in his office with more than 40 pages of potential aliments and solutions. Before the Internet infiltrated homes and offices, most patients had to seek out medical books to enter a doctor's office with any prior knowledge of a potential condition. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this month that one in three adults have plugged symptoms into a search engine in an attempt to self-diagnosis a medical issue.

Arvin Abueg, a physician a Hannibal Regional Medical Group's Canton Family Practice, said the number of people who self-diagnosis their illnesses has increased with the growing popularity of the Internet.

"Now they show me a printout of what they may have and what tests I should be ordering," Abueg said.

Abueg said most patients searching online for health concerns are in their mid-30s to mid-60s. Seaman explained even when patients aren't computer savvy, their adult children often will print out pages of potential medical solutions. Even adolescents will consult their smartphones looking for potential conditions. Seaman applauded patients who take initiative with their health, but he cautioned about the Internet's accuracy.

"When they do go to the Internet, worst-case scenarios always come up," Seaman said. "Because the Internet sometimes will be a little more grandiose or graphic or misleading, it can make it very difficult for patients and they come in nervous."

The Pew Research Center's Internet and The American Life Project found that 41 percent of symptom surfers sought a medical professional who confirmed their diagnosis, 18 percent consulted a medical professional who offered a different opinion and 35 percent reported they did not seek a professional opinion.

Abueg explained his patients who surf the Internet for medical answers usually fail to properly diagnose their issue. An ongoing cough could indicate allergies or lung cancer if not properly examined. The Internet may allude to each possibility, but Abueg said a patient's medical history and a professional physical would more accurately diagnosis the condition.

"Nothing beats a proper history and a possible physical examination," Abueg said. "We order tests to rule out possibilities, and a computer can't do that."

Abueg noted some physicians might increase the number of tests a patient receives to accommodate a self-diagnosis. He explained these tests rule out extreme, unlikely conditions to avoid malpractice lawsuits. He speculated that family history and a physical would produce an accurate answer 95 percent of the time. Still, the threat of malpractice may provoke doctors into seeking answers to all patient concerns.

"You want to make sure you want to rule out something more dangerous," he said. "If I'm wrong and you're right, you come back and sue me."

Patients who self-diagnose may rack up medical bills with unnecessary tests. The American Journal of Orthopedics published a 2012 report on the incidence and cost of orthopedic medicine among orthopedic surgeons. The study indicates that the $2.3 trillion spent on national health care in 2008 may be connected to the cost of unnecessary medical tests instigated by the threat of malpractice litigation.

Seaman said he carefully reviews patient concerns before he orders tests. Often patients and doctors will find a common ground between piles of Internet printouts and a doctor opinion.

"If I've had patients for a couple years, I know them, I know how they work and I can with my physical exam create a better diagnosis," Seaman said.

Seventy-two percent of Internet users reported seeking some kind of health information on the Internet, if not necessarily self-diagnosing a condition, according to the Pew center report, and 77 percent began searches with search engines. Another 13 percent used a specialized site such specialized health-related website such as WebMD. Another 2 percent used Wikipedia and an even smaller percentage sought answers on social media sites such as Facebook.

"It's always wise to come into your physician and make sure that your physical exam is matching what is being told to you on the Internet," Seaman said.