At your fingertips: Is Dr. Google worth the risk of misdiagnosis?

hands typing on a laptop with a search bar in front of the image

In the Age of the Internet, many caregivers hope their patients come to them with questions about what they read online. In all reality, fewer Americans than ever talk to their doctors about what they find. In fact, more than half (56%) of respondents try at-home remedies and self-diagnose themselves when they are sick, according to PRC’s 2019 National Consumer Study. The study also showed how rising generations (millennials and generation z) are less likely to have one preferred hospital or specific doctor because they would rather use the free and convenient Dr. Google. Then, if they cannot resolve the problem at home, their next steps steer to telemedicine or retail clinics before even looking at a hospital or doctor’s office. Unfortunately, these cost-friendly remedies slowly decrease hospitals’ patient counts while increasing the population’s risk of health issues due to incorrect diagnostics or ignored symptoms.

The evolution of technology

Rising generations tend to overlook the well-known saying, “I’d rather be safe than sorry” thanks to the convenience and ease of Google at their fingertips. As a result, hospitals can fall behind and lose potential patients to the constant evolution of new technology. The study examined how online healthcare consumption habits widely differ between age groups. A similar pattern between consumers under the age of 45 shows that they typically refer to Dr. Google for advice before asking a real doctor. However, when people do choose to rely on their hospital’s expertise, the study reports that 78 percent of them rated their preferred hospital experiences as “excellent” or “very good.” Why don’t more people choose their hospital’s professionally trained physicians if the quality of care is rated so high? It all circulates around the common frustrations people experience when going to the hospital. If hospitals want to keep up with their patients, they must also evolve.

Common frustrations

Though cost and convenience play a major role in many consumer decisions, these choices remain shaped by common frustrations which steer people away from hospital visits for non-emergency services.

  1. The excessive amount of time. From check in to check out, people often get anxious and impatient in traditional care settings. People schedule their appointments with no guarantee of a timely visit, whereas Urgent Care and other retail clinics are available immediately. Although people know that retail clinics offer lower quality but a quicker experience, more patients choose their valuable time over a dip in quality.
  2. The expensive nothing. Too often, it seems, physicians run tests which come back inconclusive. When situations result in nothing serious, it influences patient’s feelings the next time they feel under the weather, as they were left thinking “I should’ve just Googled it” or “why did I bother coming in?”
  3. There are other options. Instead of choosing a hospital first, 48 percent of respondents reported they are willing to substitute telemedicine over traveling to see a specialist. While fewer people currently use telemedicine than traditional options, the numbers are rising. However, the rise will also increase common healthcare frustrations. Unfortunately, many jobs are inflexible when it comes to taking time off, so any option that helps alleviate that stress is welcome.

These common frustrations shape the way rising generations view their health. The study shows that 34 percent of adults have chosen not to receive care at some point because of the high expense. People are willing to risk their professional quality of care because of past experiences—especially those who fear they will spend thousands on their hospital visit to learn nothing.

Changing the game

The National Consumer Study also reports that 90 percent of adults reported they have internet access, with 71 percent of them using it to obtain healthcare information. This phenomenon will only continue to increase as technology does. People naturally gravitate towards convenience and less expense. If hospitals want to increase revenue, it may come down to increasing availability of what people already know—the technology at their fingertips. Healthcare should advertise to rising generations via social media. The study reports that half of participants recall seeing some sort of hospital advertising recently. Online advertising has nearly doubled since 2017, growing from five to nine percent. Hospitals could take a different approach through the media and highlight the specific health risks of choosing to rely on Dr. Google instead of seeing a specialist. The convenience and cost of Dr. Google may seem harmless until a misdiagnosis turns fatal.

Hospitals can only do so much to try and sway the consumer’s negative views. Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to see if they trust the statistics and value their health. Disregarding current trends, if healthcare wants to avoid further risks with misdiagnosis, PRC’s Director of Consumer and Engagement Studies, Keith Schneider, says, “healthcare as an institutional role must find out how to make healthcare more dollar friendly and find that happy medium for consumers to choose them over Dr. Google.”


Click here to read the full 2019 National Consumer Study