Does Googling Our Symptoms Mean We Don’t Trust Our Doctors?

A study examines whether our reliance on online health information means we’re losing faith in our physicians.

Does Googling our symptoms mean we don't trust our doctors? Not so, according to new research, which found that patients want to play a more active role in the doctor-patient relationship. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

You know the situation. There’s a nagging pain in your stomach you’ve never felt before. You quickly type your symptoms into Google. By the time you’ve read through the third paragraph on WebMD, you’re hyperventilating while trying to explain to your doctor that you clearly have a stomach-eating disease that only affects 0.1 percent of the population.

Yeah, we’ve all been there.

With the rise of online health resources such as WebMD and support forums, more and more patients are first consulting the Internet before an upcoming medical appointment. On occasion, this sort of preparation may lead to some uncomfortable confrontation between the patient and doctor during an appointment. But does it mean what many health-care professionals think it means? Are we losing trust in our doctors?

Not so, according to a new study conducted by the University of California Davis Health System. It’s not that patients don’t trust their doctors, researchers found—it’s that they’re learning to play a more active role in the doctor-patient relationship.

The study, which involved 505 adult members of an online health support group, was conducted to find out whether the following hypothesis was true: “Members who report a high level of trust in their doctors would engage in less previsit online information seeking than individuals who have low trust or have no past relationship with the appointment doctor.”

In an online questionnaire, the participants rated how much they trusted their doctor on the following scale: 1) no prior relationship, 2) low relative trust, 3) moderate relative trust, and 4) high relative trust.

After analyzing the participants’ responses to an online questionnaire, researchers said they were surprised to find there were no significant results to suggest that mistrust is a major reason people go online for health information before their doctor’s appointment.

However, other findings revealed that more than 50 percent of the patients planned to make a request to their doctor based on the information they found via internet. Almost 70 percent of patients were likely to ask their doctors questions about the information they found, and 38 percent said they planned to request a new or different treatment at their upcoming visit based on their research.

So what does this mean for the future of the patient-doctor relationship? For one: Doctors should be aware that more and more patients are making use of new media to become “active information seekers,” researchers said.

Second: “This [ . . .] suggests doctors need not be defensive when their patients come to their appointments armed with information taken from the Internet,” study co-author Xinyi Hu said in a statement.

The full study was published in the Journal of Health Communications