Self-Educating or Self-Diagnosing? Using Medical Websites Wisely
I’m not sure exactly when Google took over the world and transformed the way we used the Internet, but I can Google it.
Kidding aside, with the invention, usage, and then the sophistication of Internet search engines, our world has changed rapidly. The amount of data at our fingertips no longer astounds us, though it should. Well, not “should.” But at least it still deserves to be marvelled at once in a while.
As the algorithms of search engines become more sophisticated, more people are able to reach more information quickly. But – to take minimally invasive surgery as an example, which has also gained in amazing precision – the instruments for the procedure are used by highly trained physicians. Searching for information on the internet doesn’t take the same kind of precision, of course, but it does require a bit of knowledge many haven’t quite grasped yet. These areas include “how” to research, what you’re researching and reading, and how you can be sure of its legitimacy.
This gap in knowledge by potential patients, however, have become a problem doctors are facing. Many feel they already know what’s wrong with them and diagnosed themselves based on their own research. In other words, people are using online medical research to replace the role and diagnosis of their doctors. This is a problem.
A Pew research poll recently found 35 percent of Americans go online to help determine their medical condition or somebody else’s. I imagine that number will only rise with further advances in speed and amount of data.
Neither Good Nor Bad But Both
In one sense, this is a fantastic breakthrough for patients looking to gain a better understanding of what they’re symptoms are, and to walk into a doctor’s appointment armed with informed questions to ask. In another sense, it’s a roadblock for doctors if patients are absolutely certain what they have, how it should be treated, and may keep visiting multiple doctors until they find one who concurs. This is a particular danger for those people who suffer from hypochondria, convinced they may “feel” or have a symptom that may be a phantom one.
Online Research Tips
So: if you research online regarding any symptoms you may have, here are a few things to keep in mind when doing so. It’ll save you – and your doctor – potential conflict.
- Learn how to search accurately: What you type in a search engine is what triggers your results. If your search words are too specific, you may not come up with what you’re looking for. If too broad, you may also receive hyperlinks to sites irrelevant. Learn how to use keywords in searches more effectively by looking at the results of your search first, see what you receive, and if it looks a little off base, consider re-wording.
- Learn to read a search engine hit synopsis: Many people researching online get easily seduced by that old hyperlink. They tend to be a bit clicker-happy when the first or second result seems to fit. Remember, though: being the first or second result in the queue doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the one you want. It merely means Google determined through algorithm these sites the top sites based on your keywords, and perhaps by the popularity – or number of “hits” – the site receives. However, before you click, make sure it’s: a) not an ad, b) from a site whose name or anything else doesn’t read a bit “wanky,” and c) read through the synopsis to determine its relevance. Further,
- How recent is the information?: This can be easy to overlook, I’ve found. The date of the article is not very prominent in the synopsis, nor is the filter by date: it’s by – again, according to the “G”-meister – the most relevant. You may not need the most recent information if you’re looking, say, for a study from a medical journal, but if timeliness is important, revise your search keywords to say something like, “2016” or “most current,” etc.
- How reputable is the website?: This is getting tricky. Marketing has gotten extremely savvy in getting one to click to their site, have it look “professional” or “definitive,” when in actuality the site is intended to sell a product. Indeed, how many times have you clicked on a link quickly and three-fourths into reading the article, or navigating the site, you found out it was trying to sell you something? I certainly have. So, when searching, try to take a little more time first in determining the site by its result synopsis. Taking the time in the beginning will, believe me, save you much more time than clicking on a site designed to send you down a cyber molehile deep enough so they can spring the pricey bottle of “natural” medicine which, in very small font at the bottom, state, “*not FDA approved.”
Further Determining What’s Unbiased and What’s a Sales Pitch
- Find news sources whose name you recognize to be reputable
- Look at the name of the Organization and their “About” page. It also helps to scroll down to the bottom first to see if there are any fine-fonted disclaimers
- One reputable news website, The Huffington Post, states,”The National Library of Medicine has a full page of links [in] finding and evaluating health information online…[other]trusted sites include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and major hospital and university websites. Medical journals are good sources of information, but they are written for a professional clinical audience and subject to misinterpretation by the average person.”
- Concerning the last point, I would add, hey: why not at least try to click on those journal articles and see if you can determine the research, the parameters, the outcomes, etc. It might be a good exercise in analyzing case studies or research trials which may come in handy later!
Reading Yourself Into a State
The most important thing to keep in mind, however, when looking for information is this: online information is no substitute for a physical examination by a licensed doctor. They will be able to see things your “source” cannot, and often, may relieve the anxiety you may have built when you’ve convinced yourself that your life is at stake when in fact, what you have may be a minor condition easily treatable.
Why You Need a Professional Third Party Opinion
This is what anxiety and panic attacks do, in fact: they set off extreme levels of emotion that far supersede the situation. You have worked yourself, through reading by yourself online, into such a state of conviction, that your body is usurped with anxiety. This is certainly not “delusional:” though hypochondria is a real condition whose symptoms go beyond the scope of my point. Panic attacks are very real experiences. But you won’t know that’s what you’re experiencing if you don’t go to the doctor who can tell you.
As far as I know, Google has yet to find an algorithm to determine whether you’re having a panic attack or something more serious.
- Health, Novant. ‘Doctors Weigh in on the Dangers of Self-Diagnosing Using the Internet’. 2016. Accessed July 7, 2016. https://www.novanthealth.org/home/about-us/newsroom/healthy-headlines/articleid/160/doctors-weigh-in-on-the-dangers-of-self-diagnosing-using-the-internet-.aspx?mobilewidthcheck=y.
- Miller, Jim T. ‘The Most Reliable Health Websites on the Internet’. Huffington Post (The Huffington Post), August 4, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-t-miller/online-medical-information_b_3667454.html.