Using online health websites to self-diagnose is a troubling phenomenon. However, it is not uncommon for people to first conduct research on their symptoms on the Internet prior to seeking out a health professional. In many cases, patients arrive at an office with a preconceived notion of their diagnosis and required treatments—whether or not it has any bearing on what is, in reality, actually needed.
Although informed healthcare consumers can, in some ways, make a doctor’s job easier, misguided notions from web-based investigation can also complicate or harm the physician-patient relationship. Some patients grow angry when a doctor seems dismissive or hesitant to jump to particular diagnoses, and some physicians get frustrated when patients push for testing or a particular diagnosis or medication based solely on impersonal online research.
Tools of the Trade
Common tools used in Internet research of health conditions include everything from articles to chat rooms. In many cases, lack of context and medical education—as well as a bias toward more unusual cases in the discussion of health conditions online—leads the casual researcher to a direr conclusion than is likely.
Although WebMD and Healthline host Symptom Checkers that can be highly reliable and useful, it’s all too easy for most people to skip past the most logical explanation for back pain (a strain or injury) to other conditions that show up on the list of possibilities (pulmonary embolism and fibromyalgia). Testing out the symptom checkers for common complaints and finding the most drastic explanations the most interesting to read about, readers can easily come to understand the phrase “7 clicks to cancer.”
“Ask the Doctor” columns are popular ways to get a slightly more personal question answered by a health professional. In many cases, however, the disjointed interaction and the desire of the website to make the question and answer useful to the maximum number of readers takes the nuance out of the issue. This can leave users without an answer that is sufficiently customized—in many cases, the provided information is readily available in general articles elsewhere.
Perhaps more popular than the above options is the idea of a health chat room. In open discussion forums, anyone may ask—and anyone may answer—all types of health questions. Although users can provide unlimited personal detail and context, answers often come from people with no medical expertise, incorrect information, or even worse: harmful suggestions. Responses are often trite, extreme, or ill-informed.
What’s a Sick Person to Do?
Fear not: the Internet can still be an immensely useful and helpful tool for a bit of home care or pre-office visits. The trick to effectively using the web is to know what is reliable and what is reasonable.
For starters, begin your research on respected websites, such as that of Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic. Use the most probable (often the least extreme) answer from a Symptom Checker tool to guide your search. Better yet, call a free nurse or help hotline to discuss your symptoms before diving into online research.
If you already have a specific diagnosis, such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis, consider starting at a disease-specific webpage with a national reputation. Examples include the American Diabetes Association and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Although these pages are not the “be all end all” answer for individuals in those communities, they may be helpful for providing more relevant and filtered information on specific symptoms.
Obviously, there are cases in which even the best and most informed online research simply cannot replace the experience and understanding of a medical professional. If you are worried about your symptoms or have a concern that you suspect may merit urgent medical attention, visit a health professional in person. Access and cost problems should not be allowed to dissuade you from seeking care when you are concerned. The resolution and peace of mind that can be gained from personal interaction with a health professional can provide the answers you need—sans the 7 clicks (although some doctors now offer virtual visits over your computer!).