Many people are turning to the Internet to find out the cause of a particular symptom. While the Web is full of information, is it possible to self-diagnose? Or is visiting a doctor the best thing to do? Find out.
A 2011 study conducted by Few Research Centres found that 80 per cent of Internet users look for health information over the Internet, and medical queries are the third-most popular web activity after email and use of search engine.
Question is, is this the right approach to diagnostics? Let’s take a look at both sides of the story:
Benefits of looking for health information over the Internet
- Wealth of information at patient’s fingertips – Before Internet, people only had access to hospitals, books and medical leaflets for advice. Today, Internet has given access to every possible medical journal, written and video content for various medical procedures, testimonials and reviews of healthcare establishments and online health forums.
- Access to life saving solutions – Sudden onset of certain symptoms like appendicitis can be quickly researched, allowing a person to reach out for timely medical help.
- Helpful information for parents and caregivers – The Internet has allowed people to become better informed about their loved one’s condition and learn newer ways for providing care. For example, a child with asthma be made comfortable or an elderly person’s safety at home can be ensured through various online resources.
When Google is dangerous for diagnosis
- Relying solely on Google to diagnose symptoms can come in way of getting the right treatment for an ailment. An Misdiagnosis –Internet user looking for answers through a search engine might focus on the wrong symptoms or miss an important indicator, which a specialist doctor would otherwise use to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Misdiagnosis may occur in two ways – a self-positive enforcement, wherein an individual fails to consider the real severity of the condition, and self-negativity, in which s/he reaches a more severe conclusion than is needed. Mistaking indigestion for heart attack or vice versa is an example of this.
- Incorrect information on the Web – A 2010 study released by the paediatrics department of Nottingham University showed that out of 500 websites, only 39 per cent carried accurate information on common paediatric queries, 11 per cent were incorrect, and a surprising 49 per cent were completely off the mark. When people solely trust a website to diagnose themselves, this surplus and incorrect web of information can lead to misconceptions and misdiagnosis.
- Cyberchondria – Yes, the fear brought on by self-diagnosis through Internet searches does have a formal term. Many people who walk into a doctor’s clinic armed with the ‘knowledge’ they gained from web searches stress themselves to unreasonable limits, when they mismatch their symptoms with unrelated diseases. While curiosity is a good thing, an amateur medical judgement based on online information can cause immense stress.
Safe tips when browsing online medical information
- Referring to only trusted websites – Most reliable and easy-to-find medical and health information can be found on government websites, official websites of health organisations, or and news websites (to an extent).
- Staying clear of promoted content – A study published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery showed that almost 50 per cent of search results on common medical conditions list commercial websites, of which many only promote their own products or share biased information.
- Confirming the self-diagnosis – Online information should serve as a quick tool for finding answers to a problem or learning the right technique in giving care for a particular condition. However, a person should limit the endless surfing that may turn into an aimless activity. The doctor must be consulted for any lingering or unanswered concerns.
- Beware of outdated information – Once published, a piece of information can stay online forever. However, new medical advances may make some health information outdated and irrelevant. Referring to trusted health websites and checking the ‘last-updated’ tag on the page could solve this problem.
Image courtesy of [cooldesign] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
“Googling children’s health: reliability of medical advice
on the internet,” Arch Dis Child 2010;95:580–582. doi:582 10.1136/adc.2009.168856, Paul Scullard, Clare Peacock, Patrick Davies, https://adc.bmj.com/content/95/8/580.full.pdf
“Harris Poll Shows Number of “Cyberchondriacs” – Adults Who Have Ever Gone Online for Health Information– Increases to an Estimated 136 Million Nationwide,” HarrisInteractive.com, https://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris-Interactive-Poll-Research-FOR-IMMEDIATE-RELEASE-2006-08.pdf
“Should you ever trust Dr Google more than your GP? A quarter of us put more faith in a diagnosis from the internet than from our own doctor,” DailyMail.co.uk, Lucy Elkins, July 29, 2014, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2708921/Should-trust-Dr-Google-GP-A-quarter-faith-diagnosis-internet-doctor.html
“What Doctors Think About Your Online Health Searches,” Mashable.com, Stephanie Buck, June 15, 2012, https://mashable.com/2012/06/15/online-medical-searches/
“Your Doctor’s Office or the Internet? Two Paths to Personal Health Records,” NEJM.org, New England Journal of Medicine, N Engl J Med 2009; 360:1276-1278March 26, 2009, Paul C. Tang, M.D., and Thomas H. Lee, M.D., https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp0810264