Do you believe what the Internet says about your health?
The Internet offers a treasure trove of news and information, much of it reliable, some of it questionable. For better or worse, whenever we have doubts or need directions, most of us turn to Google. So it’s not surprising that a recent report from the Pew Internet Project finds that 35 percent of adults in the U.S. diagnose themselves or others online.
And why not? Sites like WebMD help the average consumer find information on everything from Acid Reflux to Zoster (Herpes) Virus. The problem is that as more health information web sites crop up, the greater the chance they may disseminate bad advice or misinformation.
Physicians, in general, have accepted the web as a primary research tool for many of their (especially younger) patients. However, many believe that Internet searches, like patients’ conditions, need to be managed.
“I’ve definitely been seeing more patients come into my office with printouts from the internet in recent years,” said Dr. Bruce Hyman an internal medicine physician at Advocate Condell Medical Center. “I think the Internet is an incredible resource to patients, as long as they are going to reputable sites for their information.”
Here are Dr. Hyman’s tips for searching health information online:
- Stick to reputable web sites. Shady Bob’s Online House of Diseases shouldn’t be the first place you start looking up health conditions online. In general, university and academic medical center sites such as Mayo, Cleveland Clinic and Harvard Medical School are safe bets for reliable, peer-reviewed content. Government and certain large, non-profit sites, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the American Heart Association are also reliable.
- Resist the temptation to self-diagnose. Doing research online after a physician diagnoses a condition can be a very helpful tool for patients and families. But if you were to Google “chronic sore throat,” you would find that this can be a symptom of everything from acid reflux to tonsillitis to early stage esophageal cancer. Without an actual, in-person consult, you may be creating undue anxiety.
- Ask your physician. The Pew study also finds that 53 percent of “online diagnosers” spoke with a clinician about the information they found online. When in doubt, it’s always best to ask the expert, either on the phone or in person. Bring what you’ve found to your next appointment to discuss it with your physician. Dr. Hyman added, “I would rather help guide my patients to reliable sites so they can be well educated about conditions.”
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.