Background: The Web has become an important information source for appraising symptoms. We need to understand the role it currently plays in help seeking and symptom evaluation to leverage its potential to support health care delivery.
Objective: The aim was to systematically review the literature currently available on Web use for symptom appraisal.
Methods: We searched PubMed, EMBASE, PsycINFO, ACM Digital Library, SCOPUS, and Web of Science for any empirical studies that addressed the use of the Web by lay people to evaluate symptoms for physical conditions. Articles were excluded if they did not meet minimum quality criteria. Study findings were synthesized using a thematic approach.
Results: A total of 32 studies were included. Study designs included cross-sectional surveys, qualitative studies, experimental studies, and studies involving website/search engine usage data. Approximately 35% of adults engage in Web use for symptom appraisal, but this proportion varies between 23% and 75% depending on sociodemographic and disease-related factors. Most searches were symptom-based rather than condition-based. Users viewed only the top search results and interacted more with results that mentioned serious conditions. Web use for symptom appraisal appears to impact on the decision to present to health services, communication with health professionals, and anxiety.
Conclusions: Web use for symptom appraisal has the potential to influence the timing of help seeking for symptoms and the communication between patients and health care professionals during consultations. However, studies lack suitable comparison groups as well as follow-up of participants over time to determine whether Web use results in health care utilization and diagnosis. Future research should involve longitudinal follow-up so that we can weigh the benefits of Web use for symptom appraisal (eg, reductions in delays to diagnosis) against the disadvantages (eg, unnecessary anxiety and health care use) and relate these to health care costs.