This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 7, 2014.
The doctor’s office is now the place many American adults go for a second opinion. The first opinion, research shows, comes from the Internet.
Almost three-quarters of U.S. Internet users say they’ve sought some kind of health information online in the past 12 months, and about one-third of adults admit they’ve done online research in attempts to diagnose themselves or someone else. These are the results of 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
About half of those who diagnosed their ailment after going online said their Web research made them decide to see a doctor. The survey found women are more likely than men to attempt an online diagnosis. Younger adults were also likely to try, and so were white adults, those in households earning $75,000 or more, and those with a college or advanced degree.
These results don’t surprise Dr. Sang-ick Chang, assistant dean for clinical affairs at the Stanford School of Medicine. He said “a very large group” of his patients tell him about medical research they’ve done online, “and the rest do it and don’t tell me about it.”
Chang said, overall, he’s glad patients are trying to be informed. He added that, before the Web, most people’s health information came from family and friends. “The Internet is at least as accurate as your Uncle Bob or your neighbor’s friend,” he said.
Chang recommends patients seek out websites of well-respected health organizations, like the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association or the National Cancer Institute. MedlinePlus, a website run by the National Institutes of Health, and the Mayo Clinic’s website also have reputable medical information written for the public. And if you want some feedback about your research but aren’t sure you need to see a doctor, Chang suggests sending a secure e-mail to your doctor.
If you’re someone who turns to the Web for health help, these numbers show you’re not alone.
The percentage of U.S. Internet users who say they’ve looked for some kind of health information online in the past year.
The percentage of information seekers who said they started with a search engine. Thirteen percent said they started with a specific health website, and 2 percent said they used a general site such as Wikipedia.
The percentage of U.S. adults who say that, at one time or another, they’ve gone online to check symptoms and try to diagnose a medical condition they or someone else might have.
The percentage of those who diagnosed their health issue and said a medical professional later confirmed their diagnosis. Eighteen percent said the doctor disagreed with their diagnosis, and 35 percent decided not to see a doctor after they made an online diagnosis.