Every year, Americans spend at least $20 billion on unnecessary medical visits in the US. This is one of the drivers behind the spiraling cost of health care, which is predicted to soar to $5.5 trillion by 2024. The last thing you'd imagine is that the internet would have anything to do with this. But guess again.
Medical doctors are already aware of the connection, because they see it every day. Patients arrive at offices and clinics with a "Google stack," as it's sometimes called: a pile of print-outs from the online research they've done that has led them to form their own amateur medical opinion.
Seventy-two percent of Americans search for health information online, according to a 2013 Pew study. About 35% search for diagnostic information, and of those who attempt to self-diagnose, just over half proceed to make an appointment with a medical professional to talk about what they found online. In June 2016, Google reported that roughly 1% the site's searches are related to medical symptoms.
For a number of reasons, most medical professionals aren't too happy about the self-diagnosis trend. It isn't simply a matter of loss of control or an undermining of their authority though online medical searches—it can mess with the diagnostic process, because the results can suggest rare or morbid conditions to patients, which in turn can prompt the appearance of new "symptoms." You search online for "sore throat," for instance, and find yourself engrossed and horrified by descriptions of esophageal cancer. Your anxiety escalates.