Internet Medicine: Should I consult ‘Dr. Google’?

What did we do before the Internet? A search can answer many of life’s questions; All well and good when you want to know the bus schedule, what’s playing at the cinema, or where to find the best sushi restaurant in a new town.

But, there are times, when, the Internet is not the best first source of information. When it comes to medical conditions, typing symptoms into a search engine will return so many wild and far-fetched results that you can easily scare yourself silly.

Many of us turn to Internet research for information on unexplained aches or pains. With quick answers readily available via the devices we all carry, it would be strange not to. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just so long as we keep a sense of perspective, and don’t allow the alarming ailments described in the search results to convince us we have barely moments to live.

Here are some tips to help get and maintain vital perspective:

Choose Accurate Reliable Sites

Peer lead, forum based sites are not the best bet because even though they have a lot of information, a good part of that information may not be applicable to you. While it’s interesting to read people’s experiences with symptoms similar to yours, the problem is that similar symptoms are present in many diverse conditions. For instance, the symptoms caused by bad indigestion can mimic heart attack pain. It takes years of training and some sophisticated monitoring equipment to make an accurate diagnosis. There are two danger points:

  • Your condition may be serious but the forum discussions you’re reading lead you into a false sense of security,
  • Your condition is not serious, with symptoms easily treated by over-the-counter medications, but from what you read you’re convinced a trip to the ER is urgently needed.

Without medical training, it’s practically impossible to make the right judgment call when you have new symptoms. Research and analysis into the accuracy of medical information found on the Internet has revealed that blogs and websites run by individuals are the least reliable, with between 25 and 30% accuracy.

Sites such as those with domains ending in .gov, .org or .state are the most reliable but still they aren’t 100% foolproof. Advice you find there is really only relevant to you it if you have been diagnosed with the disease, a proper, official diagnosis by a doctor.

Even if the information is accurate, a second problem with Internet research is that you might come across unfamiliar medical terms or jargon, leading to further research that can also provoke unnecessary concern.

Doing research on the Internet about a condition is best left until after you have been diagnosed with that condition. You doctor may have a much harder time finding out the cause of your symptoms, if you have a preconceived notion about what might be wrong.

Internet research is most useful after a diagnosis. When you know exactly what the problem is, the Internet can help you to research and understand complex medical issues. It can empower you to ask your doctors the right questions and help you play a more proactive role in your treatment and recovery.

Following diagnosis, what a useful as a tool to help you reach other patients with similar conditions through support groups!

Internet Research Do’s and Don’ts

Because we are not going to stop looking on the Internet to help us understand medical conditions or find out possible causes for symptoms, bear in mind these tips when consulting Dr. Google:

What Not to Do

  • Don’t believe everything you read on blogs.
  • Don’t trust hyped-up marketing copy. Advertisements on websites are sometimes hard to spot since they are often cleverly placed to appear like part of the text. If something looks like a miracle cure or sounds too good to be true, (it probably is). Ignore it and move on.
  • Don’t self-diagnose. Look at everything you read as possible background information rather than solid fact that applies to you personally. A diagnosis that you can trust only comes from your doctor.
  • Don’t assume that medical conditions always cause the same symptoms. Having some symptoms of a serious disease usually doesn’t mean that you have the disease, because individuals are different in showing the symptoms of their disease.
  • Don’t self medicate using information that you got from the Internet.

What You Should Do

  • Do your research at reputable, reliable organization or government websites.
  • Double-check all the facts, especially those found on individual or blog sites.
  • Use common sense, and don’t allow information you find on the Internet to scare you into rash actions.
  • Always see a doctor for diagnosis, and check with medical specialists or consultants before following online advice.

The Internet is a very useful tool and it can teach us many things. But, it can’t replace years of medical training that your doctor has and, as such, it should never be relied on or trusted when it comes to something as important as your health.

This does NOT mean that you should never use the Internet for medical advice, but you should use it with common sense and use the Internet to clarify information. Then, you ought to ask your doctor if what you read, could be true.


This post was written by Dr. Aaron Braun, Medical Director at SignatureCare Emergency Center.


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