One in three Americans goes online in search of a diagnosis when sick, usually starting at a search engine.
Deb Huttner's sore ankle, nagging her for a month, wasn't healing.
But before she called the clinic, she went online and tried to figure it out herself. On WebMD.com she found a possible diagnosis -- tendinitis and bursitis -- and decided she needed more help.
"When I went to the doctor they said, 'Yep, that's what it is,'" said Huttner, 42, of Crystal, Minn.
Now on the mend, she is among the millions of people diagnosing their own conditions online. One in three Americans look to the Internet when trying to fix what ails them or someone else, according to a study released this week by the Pew Internet Project.
About half of those who do online triage follow up with a visit to the clinic. In 40 percent of those cases, a medical professional confirmed the diagnosis.
"Online health information is available day or night, at no cost, and the Internet has become a de facto second opinion for many people," said Susannah Fox, lead author of the Pew report.
While Fox and local experts caution that the Internet isn't the same as a visit to a medical professional -- and can offer scary or misleading answers -- it's a key resource for patients that health care providers are starting to embrace.
Sometimes it even makes more sense than trekking to the clinic.
Allina, for example, recently encouraged non-emergency patients to use its MyChart system for e-visits rather than sit in clinic waiting rooms at the height of flu season.
"It's all about convenience," said Dr. Jane Herrmann, medical director of MyChart e-visits.
Fox, who has studied online health habits since 2000, called the trend a "sea change."
"In the beginning, medical professionals were often very resistant," Fox said.
Health Partners developed its VirtuWell system for e-visits as a reaction to online demand.
"If you kind of stick your head in the sand and don't try to come up with ways of presenting an electronic approach, all you're doing is leaving poor options out there," said Dr. Pat Courneya, medical director of Health Partners Health Plan.
According to Pew, 80 percent of the people who seek health information online start at a general search engine, such as Google or Bing.
The Mayo Clinic's website for consumer health information, one of the most credible resources online, draws an average of 100 million page views a month.
But even there, doctors say, people shouldn't get too anxious about what they might find. They also should follow up with their doctor if they have questions.
"When you search 'headache' and (the Internet) comes up with brain tumor, it's not likely going to be the first thought on 'headache' that your doctor will have," said Dr. Roger Harms, editor-in-chief of Mayo's consumer information site.
Andy Whisney, 24, said he tries to remember that when prowling the Web -- via Google, WebMD.com and Health Partners' VirtuWell. The Edina, Minn., resident, who jokes about slight hypochondriac tendencies, said he has sought info on all sorts of ailments, from pneumonia to gluten intolerance.
"You get to know your body, so you want to make sure everything is OK," Whisney said. "It's so much easier, too, than having to go to the doctor."
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