Admit it. You’ve had an ache or pain or a sniffle or stiffness and Googled your symptoms to figure out what was wrong. We’ve all done it.
While WebMD may be the quickest way to find and answer, it may not be the healthiest.
“The danger is that many different diseases have similar symptoms and it is difficult for a person without medical training to distinguish between possible causes,” says Dr. Jim Dearing, chief medical officer for John C. Lincoln’s Physician Network. “This becomes more dangerous if the patient decides to self-medicate instead of consulting a physician, because they could easily be treating the wrong thing – and their treatment may make the real cause of their symptoms worse.”
According to a 2011 Pew study, 80 percent of Internet users look for health information online, making medical inquiries the third most popular use of the Web, trailing only email and search engine use. And a recent survey of 1,000 people found that almost one-quarter of 1,000 people surveyed have misdiagnosed and treated themselves wrongly thanks to the information they found online.
“With the abundance of information available on the Internet, sorting fact from fiction can be difficult,” says Dr. Mary Ellen Dirlam, medical director of Samaritan Academic Faculty Practices at Banner Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. “Information on the web may be inaccurate, incomplete, outdated or biased by commercial interests. Misinformation or applying accurate information inappropriately may result in needless worry or false reassurance, causing delay of treatment.”
Some of that needless worry has created a condition called “cyberchondria,” which is fear and preoccupation with medical concerns caused by health research online.
Virginia Kwan, a psychologist at Arizona State University, examined how symptoms presented online can influence people’s reactions to possible medical conditions
“The way gamblers say they have a ‘hot hand,’ cyberchondriacs believe they have ‘hot symptoms,’” Kwan says. “If they hit the first two in a list, they believe they must have the third one as well.”
While issues of misdiagnosis and cyberchondria can result from overzealous online medical research, doctors agree that there is a constructive place for Internet research in healthcare.
“The Internet provides a wealth of information for parents interested in their child’s medical care,” says Dr. Robb Muhm Jr. of Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “The amount of information can be overwhelming at times. The biggest danger for parents is choosing the incorrect information from among all the available information on the Internet. This is an area where the pediatrician can be very helpful. We can help the parents make the right decision for their child based on experience, research, and the most current information.”
Dr. Sanford Silverman of Scottsdale’s Center for Attention Deficit and Learning Disorders and Center for Peak Performance points out that the Internet can be a useful tool to create a common ground to start a diagnostic and treatment discussion with a medical professional.
“The more informed the patient is, the easier it is to communicate with them,” he says. “In this respect, prospective patients can learn from pertinent Internet sites and then share their thoughts and findings with the doctor. I have worked with many patients who were diagnosed with anxiety and or depression. By using the Internet to research this diagnosis, they found links to Attention Deficit Disorder, which they then believed was a more accurate diagnosis. They scheduled an appointment to investigate if they have this disorder. In the majority of my cases, they were accurate and ADD was a contributing or major part of their difficulties. The Internet helped steer them to appropriate authorities.”
ADVICE FROM EXPERTS
Valley doctors offer insight for those people who have a medical issue or question and are considering turning to the Internet for answers:
Dr. Mary Ellen Dirlam, Banner Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center: Patients searching the internet need to verify the identity and credentials of the online source. Reputable sources include their healthcare provider as well as the Medical Library Association internet site. This website offers an excellent article, “A user’s guide to finding and evaluating health information on the web” as well as a list of good sources for information.
Dr. Robb Muhm Jr., Phoenix Children’s Hospital: We should all be critical media consumers. We always need to be mindful of where the information is coming from. The American Academy of Pediatrics website (aap.org) is a good starting point. The AAP has another parent-specific website dedicated to providing accurate, current information on a wide variety of topics: healthychildren.org. When I have a question, I start with these two websites.
Dr. Penny Krich, EVDI Medical Imaging: A patient should be wary of anecdotal medical information often found on the Internet. Each patient’s medical history is different. It should be taken into account that a similar symptom for one person may have very different implications for someone else with a different underlying medical problem.
Jelden Arcilla, chief nursing officer, St. Luke’s Medical Center: The best sites to visit and reference for individual and basic education on health and medical conditions are non-profit, government and academic web sites. These are sites are generally unbiased with no individual disclosure or conflicts and have the most updated, evidence-based research to support its information and recommendations. They also are reputable web sites to provide you referrals to nearest health care provider who can further address your concerns.