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.
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 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. 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:
- Supplement your knowledge
Instead of using it to diagnose or treat a condition by yourself, focus on information that tells you how to choose a medical specialist, how to improve your chances of getting an accurate diagnosis, etc. You can also delve deeper into the functioning of the human body.
If you have been diagnosed with a certain medical condition, you can use the Web to learn about it in detail. 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. For example, if you have been diagnosed with autoimmune disease, Sarah Wilson’s blog can help you navigate the daily management of the disease. But if you haven’t got a confirmed diagnosis yet, it isn’t advisable to read the blog and decide for yourself that you have autoimmune disease based on a handful of matching symptoms and go ahead with remedial advice. That could do your body and mind more harm than good. Your intuition might be right, but do consider that it could be wrong.
- Improve your health
Use online resources to improve your health and fitness levels. For example, you can use it to start exercising at home or to eat smarter. Whether you’re embarking on a new fitness regimen or a diet plan, do get it approved from your physician to ensure that you won’t be giving rise to a negative health situation or aggravating any existing medical condition.
- Find a support group
No matter how positive and reassuring your doctor has been about your medical condition, it helps to have a network of people who know exactly what you’re going through because they have also been there. Find relevant online forums and support groups to keep your outlook positive and manage the nitty-gritty of the condition better. To see what you can expect from such a resource, read this article about support groups for depression.
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.
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.