Every evening for two weeks, Wally experienced a stomach ache. He kept meaning to call his doctor, but the pain always disappeared by morning. Wally decided to go online to research his symptoms. Going to his favorite search engine, he keyboarded “stomach pain.” Scrolling through the results, he clicked on links: Appendicitis? Colon cancer? A pulled muscle? Kidney stones? As he surfed from website to website, he became more alarmed and confused. Chat board posters offered harrowing stories. Official-looking websites were hawking expensive herbal supplements and strange medical devices, guaranteeing a cure. Finally, Wally made an appointment with his doctor, who diagnosed the problem as an ulcer caused by a medication he was taking for his arthritis. The doctor changed his medication and the ulcer quickly healed.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that three-fourths of internet users routinely look online for health information. An increasing number of patients are showing up for medical appointments having already consulted what physicians jokingly call “Dr. Google.” The availability of healthcare information online has changed the way patients learn about health conditions and treatments. This increased accessibility of medical information can be a good thing, but there are definite pitfalls to avoid.

Is this phenomenon only common among younger people? Not these days. The American Medical Association says that over half of Americans aged 65 or older now research health topics online. And you might be surprised to know that family caregivers are substantially more likely than other people to turn to the Web for health information. According to Pew Research Center associate director Susannah Fox, “Caregivers vividly illustrate a primary truth about the social impact of the internet: it enables people to quickly gather information on a complex topic in order to make better decisions.”

Before you settle in at your keyboard or smartphone to search out a symptom or to learn to learn more about a diagnosis, remember five important things:

  1. Not all web content is created equal. The Web is home to much reliable health information—and plenty of useless material, as well. A good rule is that if you would trust the source of the content in real life, the site is more likely to be trustworthy. Websites sponsored by government agencies, universities, hospitals and other reputable healthcare organizations and companies are most likely to offer good, up-to-date information—as well as the right level of caution to prevent consumers from self-diagnosing and making decisions with incomplete information. These sites are designed to disseminate information, promote health and provide updates as a service to the clients and customers they serve.
  2. Don’t rely on random search engine searches. Some searchers begin with a particular website where they know they will find information on the topic they are interested in; others merely enter the name of their symptoms or diagnosis in a search engine box, and click on the results. Remember, search terms may turn up just about anything! The best way to research a health condition or health procedure you’re interested in is to begin with the website of an authority on that topic. For example, Wally, above, might visit the website of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, one of the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health sites. There he would find an A-Z list of topics, where he could read information about peptic ulcers.
  3. Information on forums, bulletin boards and social media pages is usually posted by non-experts. The Pew Research Center study found that many people are eager to share their experiences of a particular disease or treatment; many other people are eager to read their accounts. Discussion boards, chat rooms and social media groups have created a global backyard fence, and it is human nature to seek out these conversations. These sites provide emotional support and online companionship for millions of people who are dealing with a similar health problem. Participants commiserate, exchange practical tips and discuss how they handle the challenges of their condition. But the medical information participants post is often inaccurate. Rarely are these boards moderated by a qualified professional. These sites also can be infiltrated by commercial posters who try to sell their products.
  4. Bad products may have great-looking websites. Just as they do in the real world, many thousands of unscrupulous businesses operate on the Web, offering miracle cures, useless medications and treatments, impossible weight loss claims, ambulance-chaser attorney services, and elaborate but medically unsound “theories” of disease. These businesses prey on gullible consumers and bilk the American public out of billions of dollars a year…as well as preventing their victims from getting the care they really need. These companies often invest in sophisticated websites that masquerade as reliable expert sites. They may spend more on the site than they do producing their product—and they also may spend millions on shady search engine techniques to ensure a symptom search will lure unsuspecting users to their site.
  5. Be alert for signs of “cyberchondria.” This term was recently coined by medical pundits who noted that patients often develop anxiety as they surf through source after source on the internet. A patient might become convinced that a bunion is a tumor, or that their medication is causing their hair to turn gray, or that they have a mythical illness that doesn’t really exist. The Microsoft Corporation has even taken note of the problem, saying, “The Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when the Web is employed as a diagnostic procedure.” Erroneous self-diagnosis is not a new phenomenon, of course. Medical and symptom guidebooks, long a steady seller at bookstores and found in the home library of many families, are useful to consult when symptoms arise. However, these books provide context, perspective and a manageable amount of information. Looking for similar health information online will often summon forth page after page of results—out of context and in no particular order when it comes to the reliability of the information.

Above all, it’s important to remember that online healthcare information cannot take the place of advice from your own healthcare provider. Fortunately, more and more healthcare providers are realizing that their own web presence can help support patient education. Hopefully your medical group’s own site is or will be a great place to start learning about your health and treatment!

A Good Place to Start Your Search

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that is responsible for health-related research. It is divided into 27 institutes and centers, each of which has a website with quality consumer information covering a particular aspect of healthcare.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine is another great place to begin your search. The NLM website includes information on a wide variety of health topics and each topic includes an extensive collection of approved links to web information, videos, tutorials from reputable institutions and organizations nationwide.

Reminder: whenever you have questions about your health or health care, consult with your doctor.

Alden Blog and IlluminAge; copyright IlluminAge 2014

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