Google released the top 10 symptoms that people searched for in 2015. The list? Flu, gallbladder infection, measles, listeria, sinus infection, gastritis, anxiety attack, H. Pylori infection, heat stroke and lactose intolerance, in that order. We’re living in an age where everyone believes they can turn on a computer and self-diagnose their illnesses. How are physicians supposed to treat self-diagnosing patients?

In a guest post on, David Troxel, chief medical officer of malpractice insurance carrier The Doctors Company, offered a few tips, including providing patients with a list of online resources that provide accurate information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Troxel also suggested directly discussing what they’ve read. “The exchange enhances your relationship with the patient and can increase treatment compliance,” he wrote. “Welcome questions, and help put the patient’s information in the appropriate context.”

And what about online symptom checkers—interactive tools hosted by reputable sources such as medical schools, hospital systems, insurance companies and government agencies? Researchers at Harvard Medical School studied the accuracy of general-purpose symptom checkers and found that, while they’re often wrong, “They are roughly equivalent to telephone triage lines commonly used at primary care practices—and they are better than general Internet-search self-diagnosis and triage,” according to this Harvard Gazette article on self-diagnosis.

In a June 2015 post on the topic, Dr. Rami Hashish of the San Francisco-based health system Dignity Health said managing care in this self-diagnosing age comes down to taking the time to communicate with patients and making sure you pass along the right information. Be explicit and humble, he said, and don’t belittle.

In the end, it might actually be a good thing when patients try to self-diagnose. “While self-diagnosis threatens medical authority, it’s also associated with better patient compliance and self-care,” explained Hashish. “Essentially, the character trait that drives someone to seek out medical information is the same one that accelerates a desire to improve and therefore follow a plan of care.

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