The Internet is an amazing source of information for almost anything you can think of, including health topics. The same tool you use for looking up a local pizza place or dry cleaner is also a helpful means of discovering facts about health conditions — when you know where and how to look. If you're one of the millions who regularly uses Google, health information is now more available than ever. What has the search engine done lately to change the way we seek out health-related material?
Health Information at Your Fingertips
Google has made a name for itself by providing quick access to anything online. In many searches, whether for word definitions or units of measurement, the answer you're seeking will appear at the top of the search page — and health information is no exception. For example, if you perform a Google search for "pneumonia" right now, a box appears on the right-hand side of the page. It contains a simple explanation of what pneumonia is, along with an illustration. However, should you believe everything you read from this tool? Let's investigate where the info is coming from.
Google explains that its process for aggregating information uses search algorithms from "high-quality sites" before having teams of medical professionals "review and refine" the information. Google also lists the websites and government agencies that it draws on for info. These sources are considered trusted because they share well-validated information that has been looked over by members of the medical community. In that sense, Google is a good place to check if you would like to know some basic information about health conditions.
Searching With a Grain of Salt
Only a qualified medical professional can determine whether the information you find online applies to your situation. A study from the Journal of Medical Internet Research shows that one in three people searching for health care information on Google want to know about symptoms. Because many conditions have the same symptoms, Google's health information box won't appear for symptom searches. There's no way for any search engine, including Google, to know what's causing, for example, your head to hurt or skin to itch. Other popular Google health information searches, such as causes and treatment/drugs, have the same issues. There's no way for Google to come up with results that explain your exact situation.
According to Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, stress and searching for health info online are related: "Results suggest that health-anxious individuals experience more negative consequences from online health information search."
So if you're in need of answers, it's best to get definite ones from your doctor, rather than frantically searching online.
Google provides a great resource of information on any topic you can think of, and its recent health-info overhaul makes it easy to search for and learn about health issues quickly. However, it is no substitute for professional medical attention. Your health care providers have dedicated their careers to determining the best way to treat you, and their expertise needs to be what you draw on before you make any decisions or assumptions.