House calls are back and they are only a click away; but could overindulging in access to health information actually be hurting us?

When you’re not feeling well, it’s natural to want to find out what’s wrong. And the idea of doing so from the comfort of your own home without the hassle of a doctor’s visit is appealing. So appealing, in fact, a survey by Pew Research Center found that more than 35 percent of Americans had gone online to self-diagnose their symptoms. (Topping the list are pregnancy symptoms, flu symptoms and diabetes symptoms.) Sounds harmless, right? Actually, no.

If you tend to search online when you’re not feeling well, make sure you are following these steps:

1. Use trusted sites

You can’t trust everything you see on the Internet: there is no shortage of photoshopped images or opinions disguised as news. Unfortunately, there’s even more bad health information. Stick to searching on reputable websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be especially wary of sites that are selling supplements, foods or anything health-related that sounds too good to be true. (Spoiler: It is!)

2. Don’t read only one diagnosis

A study, published in the British Medical Journal, found that the correct diagnosis was only returned as the top search result 34 percent of the time on 23 sites that are self-billed “symptom-checkers”. It is better to read a handful of results: half the sites had the right diagnosis in the top three and nearly 60 percent had it in the top 20.

3. Talk to a doctor about your suspected diagnosis

No matter what you find, it’s important to have you doctor confirm your diagnosis. The Pew survey found that 35 percent of respondents did not get a second opinion, but of those that did, only 41 percent had their suspicions confirmed by a medical professional.

4. Don’t stress out about your possible imagined health condition

If you’re the type of person who gets easily stressed by uncertainty, you should be especially cautious of googling your symptoms, cautions one study. You may have a condition dubbed “cyberchondria”, the online version of hypochondria, where you think every symptom applies to you. For example, mistaking a simple tension headache for a brain tumor, for example. This can cause you to worry unnecessarily, visit the doctor more than necessary and demand too many tests or even medications you don’t really need.

While search engines can empower us with information, online research is no substitute for a physician’s diagnosis. Rose Taroyan, MD, MPH, clinical assistant professor of family medicine and primary care physician at Keck Medicine of USC, warns against the risk of incorrect self-diagnoses.

“People end up with misleading information that can cause stress,” she said. “Instead of searching the Internet for medical answers, try scheduling regular checkups with a primary care provider that can put your mind at ease and directly address your concerns.”

If you believe something is wrong, reach out to your primary care physician for help. Not only can you count on their diagnosis, but can immediately receive steps for treatment.

If you are local to Southern California and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.KeckMedicine.org/request-an-appointment to schedule an appointment.

By Anne Fritz