The Dangers Of Searching For Medical Information Online

Akshata Shanbhag 06-12-2014

Did you know that according to a study conducted by The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association (JAOA), Wikipedia has wrong information on 10 of the most expensive medical conditions?


Did you know that the accuracy of the results you get while searching for medical information online varies wildly based on your search query?

Looking for medical information on the Web is a gamble at best. You key in a symptom, a disease, a medical term or two and you’re quickly presented with a bunch of matching results at random. You take one look at them, add two and two, and come up with five.


Searching for and relying on online medical information to diagnose/treat yourself, someone you know, or even a pet, can prove costlier than you think. Here’s how.

It Can Cause Worry And Stress

When my Dad had hiccups for 48 hours straight, Google told me that the underlying reason could be anything from a sore throat to a heart condition to cancer. For some reason I latched on to the heart-related diagnosis and worried myself crazy. The hiccups turned out to be a symptom of acid reflux. My Dad’s doctor reassured him that they could be cured with a few days of medication. Phew!


While this was a one-off incident in my life, there are people who not just regularly depend on the Internet for self-diagnosis, but also go on to believe that they’re afflicted with the most “severe” or “dangerous” disease that shows up during their online search. Such people are called cyberchondriacs.

Catherine was worried. For weeks she had been experiencing twitching in muscles all over her body. So, she did what millions of us would do: she Googled “muscle twitching”. Do the search yourself to see why Catherine’s worry quickly turned to terror. Among the results are a page on a university website about Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the incurable and fatal brain disease (which lists “muscle twitching” as a symptom), and a site about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), another rare and fatal brain condition, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

From Cyberchondria: The perils of internet self-diagnosis

I bet I have got you thinking if you might be a cyberchondriac yourself. You’re not alone, because that’s the extent to which we have begun relying on the Web for medical advice. Even healthcare professionals are choosing the Web over peer-reviewed medical journals for reference, which is alarming given the shaky accuracy levels of medical information online.

It Can Backfire

Searching for a home remedy online for the occasional headache or acne is one thing. Trying to treat persistent coughs or nagging aches and pains in this manner to avoid a trip to the doctor is a different thing altogether. The latter can turn far more serious quickly without your knowledge. I should know. An ear ache that seemed like a common enough occurrence during winter, and so confirmed by the Web, turned out to be a severe dental infection that required a root canal treatment and cost me a tooth.

Misdiagnosis works both ways. You might end up believing you have a life-threatening condition when it’s actually harmless, or you might dismiss a condition as non-threatening when it actually deserves urgent medical attention.



In any case, a licensed medical practitioner is the right person to gauge the seriousness of your condition, rid you of your misconceptions, and arm you with the right medical information.

It Can Prove Fatal

The human body is an intricate web of organs and functions that can go out of balance with the slightest provocation. When taken care of and treated right, it is usually resilient enough to regain its normal functions. But a single misstep, such as taking the wrong medication or delaying seeking medical intervention can prove to be fatal. The nature of online self-diagnosis is such that this possibility always looms large. This is because you’re a layperson trying to solve a medical mystery. You combine your superficial knowledge of your body with generic snippets of (often inaccurate, outdated, or irrelevant) medical information to arrive at an answer. That’s ignorant guesswork at best and you’re better off without it.

How Can You Use Online Medical Information?

If you find something amiss with your body or bodily functions, your first call of action should be to visit a general physician. He can make an informed diagnosis, taking into account your constitution and medical history. He can also recommend relevant tests or suggest the name of a specialist, as required. If you’re not satisfied with the diagnosis, you can always go in for a second, or even a third, opinion to remove all doubt.



When a doctor makes a diagnosis, it is not to treat the symptoms, but to treat the person experiencing them and get to the root of what’s ailing him. The bottom line is that unlike a web page, a real doctor has the knowledge, training, and experience to piece together the elements of your medical condition, arrive at an accurate diagnosis, and provide you with remedial information. This is why healthcare is poised to continue having a place for humans long after robots have usurped human jobs 6 Human Jobs That Computers Will Never Replace Read More in various fields.

Does this mean that you should steer clear of all medical information found on the Web?

Not at all. It is possible to find reliable medical advice online Where Can You Find Reliable Medical Advice Online? Read More . What’s important is that you apply it right, keep your GP in the loop, and get over the habit of jumping to conclusions. Use online resources to:



Even if you’re opting for a form of alternative therapy, it’s advisable to approach a licensed practitioner for information, diagnosis, and treatment than turning to the Web.

Tread Carefully

The Web is not at the root of all misdiagnoses, medical horror stories and such, but if you have been at the botched end of a medical mistake, it’s easier to find recourse when your dealings have been with a certified professional instead of a Web page that’s here today, gone tomorrow.

Is the Web your primary source for medical information? Has your online search ever taken a dark turn? Share your experience in the comments.

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  1. Trev
    December 7, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Good thoughts! One can certainly search online for knowledge about drugs, diseases - but do not attempt to self-diagnose and treat yourself. Leave it to doctors.

  2. Mai
    December 7, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    I searched out medical advice from the "best doctor" in the region. Was diagnosed with IBS. Three years later, I got a second opinion and was yelled at for trying to walk away from the "best doctor".

    If I had searched on the Internet, I would have saved 4 years of misdiagnosed treatment. The doctor had ignored a classic, simple condition which I discovered, once I started searching.

    IBD, and NOT IBS!

    Like the military says: "trust, but verify".

  3. eric jay
    December 7, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Just don't google it all the time.

  4. Walter Hartmann
    December 7, 2014 at 2:25 am

    If I'd followed that line of approach I'd be dead by now.
    It is very true that one has to be cautious
    It takes years of true learning, reading & research to take ones life and well being back into one's own hands.
    I started early with several of my friends studying medicine already in the late 70s while I studied Engineering. That saved my life.
    In 2005 I got sick. Very sick.
    I was diagnosed with one of the many auto-immune syndromes and found out quickly that I got about 8 years according to 'proven' modern medicine.
    By 2013 my unrelenting effort to find out paid off. I found the first true answers that started to turn my health away from a horrid state.
    In 2014, only weeks ago I was bitten by one of the ten most venomous snakes on the planet. Antivenin in the hospital saved probably my life. I knew too from doctors there what was to come. A horrid auto-immune response that left their last snake bite victim crippled. I was out in 2 days. Weeks of severe pain followed. I was scared like never before. I used what I knew to work and researched some more. A lot actually and a whole network of expert friends too. None have medical degrees - but nearly all are true experts in their field. Today I walk - nearly pain free, slightly swollen feet, - trend : receding. Hard work always pays off one day. . . and the hardest thing is to learn and to accept truth as what it is.

  5. eric jay
    December 7, 2014 at 1:54 am

    Dont google it.

  6. dragonmouth
    December 7, 2014 at 12:39 am

    "Seek information from well-known sources such as WebMD, where your questions are answered by real doctors, who have the credentials to back up their capabilities."
    Just look at the MUO Answers section. Do you seriously think that people can describe their problem(s) correctly?!

    The best advice for seeking medical advice online is, DON'T. See a doctor.

  7. Hildy J
    December 6, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    For online advice - use your government. The US offers and the even more in depth

    You can also go to the bottom of the website for a readable set of icons for various sites targeting specific issues (like flu) and a totally unreadable set of acronyms for HHS divisions (like SAMHSA which deals in substance abuse and mental health - who knew?).

    When researching something, try adding "" (without the quotes) to the end of your query. Note that other countries (Canada, UK, etc.) offer similar sites.

  8. Howard Pearce
    December 6, 2014 at 5:57 pm

    Only one comment stood out to me in the article on on-line info for medical information; and it was the following: " where your questions are answered by real doctors".

    Real doctors ? You mean those that have a state approved license ? :)

    Yes, the state always seems to have the final answer of right and wrong for those constantly looking for one in all cases.

    My warning here is not to trust state licenses too much either or without considering that those doctors can be wrong too. (Although I admit they probably have more going for them.)

    • Akshata
      December 7, 2014 at 5:07 am

      That's true, Howard. But as I said, in case anything goes wrong, fighting your case on the basis of a Web page could prove tricky.

  9. Andysnat
    December 6, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    I'd much rather trust Wikipedia for medical information that The Journal of the American Quack/Osteopathic Association.

    Osteopathy has no basis in evidence based medicine.