updated 12/6/2006 7:28:29 PM ET 2006-12-07T00:28:29

A new study in the British Medical Journal suggests the Internet search engine Google can help accurately determine a medical diagnosis.

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But don't delete your doctor's number from your BlackBerry just yet.

While Google may be a useful tool for the average patient, researchers caution that diagnosing should still be left to physicians. And there are always dangers in relying on information found on the Internet, depending on where you're looking.

If you're going to use the Web to dig for data on your symptoms or an illness, the trick may be recognizing what to do with the information and when to do it.

"Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," says Dr. Edward Hill, immediate past president of the American Medical Association. "You need someone to help you interpret the knowledge you gather."

Researchers in the study selected 26 diagnostic cases presented in the New England Journal of Medicine during 2005. Using three to five search terms from each case record, they performed Google searches and documented the three most prominent diagnoses that fit the symptoms. Searches found the correct diagnosis in 15 cases, or 58 percent of the time.

But patients are less likely to reach a correct diagnosis than doctors, who are better at critically appraising relevant articles found on the Web, says study author Dr. Hangwi Tang.

Patients doing own research
That isn't stopping some people from bringing in information downloaded from the computer about their symptoms to medical appointments, however. While many doctors initially found patients with a penchant for Internet research annoying, Tang and others are now increasingly using the opportunity to develop relationships and educate people about their health and certain conditions.

"I personally don't mind looking through the download and explaining why the treatment doesn’t work or why they don't have disease XYZ," says Tang, a respiratory and sleep physician at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Australia.

Popular sources of Internet health information, such as WebMD, strongly encourage people to share what they learn online with a doctor. The site, which attracts over 30 million users on a month, contains a symptom checker and articles on an array of topics, all written or reviewed by a physician. It also can help people read up on particularly embarrassing topics and create lists of questions to bring to the doctor's office.

"Going into that experience with information about what might be causing your problems allows for a much more useful dialogue with your physician," says Dr. Steven Zatz, executive vice president of professional services for WebMD. "It makes the physician's limited time with a patient that much more effective."

When to call the doctor
So how do you know if Web research on your symptoms is pointing to a reason to seek a doctor or plain old paranoia? There is no easy answer, but doctors say your body should be the guide.

If you've got a headache, it could be helpful to read up on the subject and bring it up at your next regular check-up, Zatz says. But if you have any kind of pain that's limiting your ability to function — alert your physician.

Ultimately, nothing can replace face-to-face contact with a doctor.

"The most important thing people need is somebody they can trust to take information to and help them interpret it," Hill says.

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