Study: Looking up symptoms online makes people less likely to trust doctor’s diagnosis

SAN FRANCISCO — Parents who Google symptoms of a child’s ailment before being seen by a physician are more likely to have less trust in their doctor’s diagnosis if their search left them believing the child was suffering from something else, a new study finds.

It can be quite tempting to rush to the computer and try to figure out what you or a loved one is battling when specific symptoms crop up, but researchers from the Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine warn the practice can get in the way of what an experienced doctor might suggest.

Google search on computer
A new study finds that people who look up symptoms online are less likely to trust their doctor if the diagnosis is different than what they found.

“The internet is a powerful information tool, but it is limited by its inability to reason and think,” says lead author Dr. Ruth Milanaik, an associate professor at the school, in a press release by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Milanaik and her team recruited 1,374 parents who had children under the age of 18 to take part in a mock situation in which a child fell ill. The parents, whose average age was 34, were told that the children experienced a rash and a fever that grew worse over three days. They were then divided into three groups.

One group was given a screen shot of an internet search that showed the symptoms of scarlet fever, and another group was shown a screen shot of symptoms for Kawasaki disease. Though quite different in nature, both conditions include rash and fever as prominent symptoms. Without proper care, scarlet fever can turn into rheumatic fever and lead to heart problems, while Kawasaki disease can cause life-threatening ailments such as aneurisms.

The third group was not shown any information about other conditions — they were only presented with the child’s symptoms.

Eventually, the groups were shown a doctor’s actual diagnosis: scarlet fever.

The internet search results played a significant role in the level of trustworthiness the parents had in the physician and whether or not they’d have the child examined by another doctor.

While about 90 percent of those who were given information on scarlet fever reported feeling trust in the doctor, only 61 percent of those in the Kawasaki disease group felt the same way, and 64 percent of that group said they’d seek a second opinion. Just 21 percent of the scarlet fever group expressed the desire for a second opinion.

In the control group, 81 percent of the participants felt they could trust the doctor and 42 percent would seek a second opinion.

“Simply entering a collection of symptoms in a search engine may not reflect the actual medical situation at hand,” says Milanaik. “These computer-generated diagnoses may mislead patients or parents and cause them to question their doctors’ medical abilities and seek a second opinion, thereby delaying treatment.”

Milanaik suggests that parents be open with their doctors about conditions they may have researched and ask questions should they feel conflicted about the actual diagnosis.

“Parents who still have doubts should absolutely seek a second opinion,” she says. “But they shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the result of internet information with the physician.”

Of course, doing it the old-fashioned way and ignoring Google all together might be an even better approach.

The study’s findings were presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco.


  1. Do not know how I stumbled onto this sight but after reading Apr 8 story “Second Opinion From Doctor Nets Different Diagnosis 88% Of Time, Study Finds”
    Nothing more to say – get a 2nd opinion and then a 3rd if the 1st two do not agree 🙁

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