The Risks of Consulting Dr. Google
Googling information can cause harm and anxiety, especially in a pandemic.
Posted April 29, 2020
"Google it." Googling something returns a wealth of valuable information. But relying on Google for medical information creates nasty side effects. Especially during a pandemic.
I routinely turn to the internet when I need information. As a professor, I rely on internet search engines as the starting point for much of my scholarly research. I also use the internet, and particularly Google, when searching for information on pretty much any topic. Where should we go for dinner? What time is the movie? Who wrote that song? Google knows everything. Or at least, Google can find any piece of knowledge.
Since Google knows everything, people also use Google for medical information. Are you experiencing a set of symptoms? Do you want to know some possible diagnoses? Maybe a friend is sick. Maybe you’re worried about a disease and decide to learn more about it. How about some cures? I am sure that Google can suggest a great variety of treatments.
Of course, we all turn to the internet. All the knowledge in the world is in our pocket at every moment of the day. All we have to do is pull out our phones and start Googling that.
Unfortunately, Googling health information has some nasty side effects. In particular, I want to describe three. And of course, we need to consider these risks with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first negative side effect is that searching for information based on symptoms can be awful for your emotional state. Using Google, or other tools, can make you feel worse and increase your health anxiety. Jungmann and colleagues (2020) recently reported on an important experimental investigation of the side effects of running a Google search. First, they asked participants to engage in hyperventilating for 2 minutes (really fast and ineffective breathing). This results in a variety of symptoms, well beyond the shortness of breath you would expect. They then asked some of the participants to run a Google search on their current symptoms. Googling made people feel worse.
Try giving Google a set of symptoms, like shortness of breath, light-headedness, dizziness, increased heart rate, and tingling in hands and legs. (This is what you will likely experience if you engage in hyperventilating for two minutes.) You will get a variety of results from Google from those symptoms. Many of the search results are very serious. When people performed a Google search for five minutes using these types of symptoms, they felt worse emotionally. They also reported greater health anxiety than people who simply waited for five minutes.
In part, this reflects the nature of the search result process. Google returns matches, sure. But it also returns matches based on how frequently people click on options. And people click on the more serious options first – heart attacks, strokes, heart arrhythmia. So those options show up high in the Google search results. Those are scary options.
If you Google a set of health symptoms right now (say, shortness of breath, fever, and cough), the top result in Google will most likely relate to COVID-19. Or simply Google "loss of smell" and again, you’ll get COVID-19. There will be other hits in your list. But COVID-19 will be a top result. So Googling symptoms right now may very well increase your concern.
A Google search can also create a second nasty side effect if you search the internet when you look up a disease. You will see a list of possible symptoms on almost any web site you look at. And many of the symptoms are fairly common and will overlap with a lot of possible problems. In other words, you’ll have experienced some of the symptoms recently.
Kwan and colleagues (2012) showed people symptom lists associated with different diseases. For some people, they grouped symptoms in a list based on how common they were. So symptoms common to lots of diseases were presented first, followed by more rare symptoms unlikely to occur with other problems. For other people, they intermixed the symptoms, common and rare, in a list. If the symptoms are grouped, you find yourself checking several in a row; often you check more symptoms than you expect. This will lead people to worry that they may have this disease. So looking up a disease, pretty much any disease, will increase your worry that you have that disease.
Now, let’s apply this second nasty side effect to COVID-19. I’ve seen the symptom lists. You probably have seen COVID-19 symptoms too. I have spring allergies in response to tree pollens. My allergic responses also include asthma. I have several of the symptoms on any COVID-19 list. If you’ve had the flu, or a cold, or allergies, you will check some of the COVID-19 symptoms.
The first two nasty side effects of Googling for medical information can each raise your anxiety level. Searching based on symptoms will show you awful diseases. If you search based on a disease, then you will see some symptoms that you may have experienced. In both cases, you will potentially increase your concern that you (or whoever you’re searching for) have the disease. Maybe you have begun to worry that the sickness you had back in January was COVID-19? The internet might be the reason you have this worry.
My third nasty side effect for Googling medical information has to do with misinformation. If you Google COVID-19, you will find some misinformation. (See this article in Nature.) You will find conspiracy theories about the start of the virus. You will find suggestions for cures that may do more harm than good.
These may not be the top results in a Google search, but those results will be there. In social media, you will find this type of misinformation frequently depending on who you follow in social media. For example, here is a link to a Washington Post article clarifying problems with suggestions that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine might be cures. The suggestion to use these drugs hasn’t been supported by reliable medical research, which is tending to show these drugs are ineffective. You will also find suggestions about drinking bleach – this is an old set of misinformation that has proposed bleach as a cure for a variety of problems. But bleach is incredibly dangerous.
Of course, you may be aware that some of these bits of misinformation have been spread by political and other leaders. But the spread of misinformation about a variety of topics is a constant problem on the internet. And many internet search processes will quickly lead you down rabbit holes filled with misinformation.
So Googling, or really any use of the internet, for medical information has risks and nasty side effects. My point isn’t that people shouldn’t use the internet for medical information. Instead, my point is that we should be aware of the nasty side effects. Generally, avoid self-diagnosis. Sure, look things up on the internet, but consult your medical professional as your primary source.
Don’t trust internet cures either. There’s a lot of snake oil out there. Again, trust reliable sources and experts. But keep in mind, with something like COVID-19, even the experts are updating their knowledge and recommendations as more information becomes available. Dr. Google can be very useful as a starting point for medical information. But please keep in mind the nasty side effects. Stay safe. Follow CDC recommendations.
Jungmann, S. M., Brand, S., Kolb, J., & Witthöft, M. (2020). Do Dr. Google and Health Apps Have (Comparable) Side Effects? An Experimental Study. Clinical Psychological Science, 2167702619894904.
Kwan, V. S., Wojcik, S. P., Miron-shatz, T., Votruba, A. M., & Olivola, C. Y. (2012). Effects of symptom presentation order on perceived disease risk. Psychological science, 23(4), 381-385.