It seems like every time I look up an odd symptom I’m having, the internet tells me I’m dying or need urgent medical attention. I know the internet is wrong, because I haven’t had urgent medical attention in about a million years, and here I am. Why is it less difficult to find sensible, testing information about doing your own plumbing online than it is to get an answer about what a little red circle on your skin might mean?
Sorting the good from the bad
The problem is that medical and health information is a hot topic online, and you can make money by creating websites that just use health-related phrases. The websites don’t need to be accurate – you just need people to come to your site. Reliable information on doing your own plumbing isn’t nearly as lucrative.
So what should you do? Ignore the internet. Well, no. If you know how to use it, the internet can be a great source for helping you decide if you should seek medical attention or just let whatever you have run its course. It can also flesh out what you know about a diagnosis you’ve already gotten. Sometimes it can even give your doctor information she can use (even a good doctor doesn’t know everything).
The trick to making internet medical information work for you is: knowing how to tell which sites are trustworthy.
The obvious sites
Sites run by famous research institutes, government agencies and medical charities are great starting places. The Mayo Clinic website is usually my first stop for basic information on a topic like food poisoning, which I have had a couple of bad cases of. That website made it clear to me that even though my symptoms were absolutely miserable, I didn’t need to seek medical attention. You can go straight to their website and look up either your symptoms or your diagnosis, if you have one.
Got a question about heart disease? The American Heart Association has a page on various conditions, with up to date research.
Combing through search engines
But sometimes you can’t find a well-reputed site that can answer your question, so you have to enter your symptom or condition name into the search engine and try to guess which website that come up are reputable. Here are a few tips for wading through that jungle:
- If it looks like somebody’s homepage, or has lots of text ads scattered all over the page (they’re often hard to distinguish from menus or the article text), hit the back button. That’s just a website designed to make money, and if anything on that site is true, it’ll be because they just copied it from some other site.
- Look for a disclaimer: a good health website will warn you up front that reading websites is no substitute for going to a doctor.
- Check the “about” page to get a clue whether the site is just trying to sell something. For example, you may look up a symptom and find yourself on a website claiming that certain fish oils will help your condition. While doctors do recommend eating fish to help certain conditions, I’d be concerned if the site telling me this was selling fish oils. Next, I would search “does fish oil help [condition]” and see what I find.
- What if the site isn’t trying to sell anything, and the information sounds reasonable, but you have no way of confirming if the author knows what they’re talking about? The author should provide citations – links, or a list of sources for their information. If they have some citations, and the citations do indeed say what the author is claiming they say, then you want to check out the citation source to make sure it’s not some random person’s homepage. (Good sources will include sources like the Mayo Clinic or other famous research institutes, or books.)
- I would personally never trust a drug company’s website, because they don’t give much coverage to the possibility you might not need drugs at all. Check out articles about depression on a drug company website sometime – even though many depressed people recover without medication, or have terrible experiences with medications they really didn’t need, most drug company articles only talk about how medication can help, or at best mention in passing that drugs are not the right solution to every case of depression.
- Whatever you do, find multiple sources that agree with each other before drawing a conclusion, and make sure those sites aren’t all just copying or relying on each other.
Used properly, the internet can help you:
- Determine whether you need to see a doctor, or can just continue to rest at home until the ailment runs its course.
- Understand more about a condition.
- Discover things you can do for yourself if the condition doesn’t require a doctor’s care. For example, if you’ve just got a cold, the internet can help you find out which over the counter drugs will help (and which may do more harm than good), or whether the chicken soup and orange juice “cures” have any validity.