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We all know the routine, you feel a bit under the weather and you quickly fire up Google, type in your symptoms and hit search. You quickly scan the search results, open a couple of webpages and within minutes you come up with several illness possibilities, some highly unlikely.
Online self-diagnosis is extremely unreliable. Any doctor you speak to will strongly advise against self-diagnosis via Google, Yahoo Answers and similar sites. The safer approach is to make your way to your local clinic and get yourself examined by a licensed medical practitioner.
But, most people will avoid making a trip to the doctor unless they really feel sick. Let’s face it, it can be a tad inconveniencing and sometimes next to impossible to drop what you are doing.
There are a few reliable, free online medical services that are run by real doctors. One of these is HealthTap, which we first wrote about in early 2013. The service is fast, anonymous and free; allowing you to ask a medical-related question and get an answer from a real doctor.
As a result of complex liability insurance arrangements with Llyod’s of London, the service is available internationally despite the fact that all doctors are located in the United States. However, while doctors can provide advice and suggestions, they cannot make real diagnoses or prescribe medication. There are currently over 37,000 doctors registered on the site and each doctor is rigorously vetted before being allowed to answer questions.
To ask a question, you need to register an account with HealthTap by completing four simple steps. The first step captures personal information while the second step requests information on health topics you’re interested in, conditions you have, medications you take, symptoms you experience, or procedures you’ve had performed. Based on your interests in step two, step three provides you with a list of possible doctors to follow for updates and information. The final step asks you to add your personal doctor, assuming you have one. You can choose to skip this step if you don’t have a personal physician.
Once you are done with registration you are directed to a page where you can ask questions for free and get them answered by real doctors. Before your question is submitted, you get the option to read earlier answers for similar questions asked by other users. You may be prompted to update your profile to get better answers from doctors. Take note that questions are limited to 150 characters so brevity is of utmost importance. But, if you donate 99 cents, your word limit is extended.
Once your question is answered, you get a notification via email. The service is pretty fast. I posted a mock question and received an answer within six minutes. The service is also available as a medical app on Google Play and the App Store.
In addition, for deeper engagement with doctors, you can also chat privately to a live, on-call doctor and get opinions based on symptoms, lab tests, images and other information you provide. The fee to ask a question privately is $9.99 per conversation.
US users may also book an appointment with a doctor by filling out an online form as shown below.
In addition to HealthTap, there are also other websites that connect you to US-based doctors for a fee. One of these is Doctors on Demand. Launched in December 2013, the service connects patients to US physicians via a computer, smartphone or tablet. The fee to use the service is $40 for 15 minutes of consultation. The service is also available as an Android app and iPhone app.
Urgent Care is a similar service that connects you to a registered nurse or doctor in the US via an iPhone app [No Longer Available]. Each call to a nurse costs $3.99 and there is no additional cost to connect to a doctor.
Reliable Medical Websites
In addition to using online medical services such as HealthTap, there are lots of reliable medical content websites where you can look up information on symptoms and read up on general medical advice. The trouble is separating the wheat from the chaff. How do you tell that a medical content site hasn’t been created by a bunch of quacks looking for advertising dollars? Well, it turns out that it’s actually quite easy to separate the pros from the quacks.
Health on the Net Foundation (HON)
The Geneva-based HON foundation is your guide to reliable medical information in the Internet. HON is a non-profit organization that promotes and guides how online health information is deployed and used. The organization is accredited to UN’s Economic and Social Council.
Formed in 1995, HON has focused on the critical question of the provision of health information that respects ethical standards. It is the oldest and most reliable code for health information online. The HON Code of Conduct is a multi-stakeholder consensus on standards to protect people from false or misleading medical information.
There are eight principles of the HON Code, namely; authority, complementarity, confidentiality, attribution, justifiability, transparency of authorship, transparency of sponsorship and, honesty in advertising and editorial policy. You can read the full details of the HON Code of Conduct at their ethical policy page.
In order to attain HON Code Certification, websites must guarantee to comply with and pledge to honor the 8 ethical principles. A review by a team of medical and legal experts determines whether a website qualifies. Sites are reviewed once a year and a site must remain in compliance in order to continue displaying the logo. The code is currently used by over 5,000 health websites spanning 72 countries. It has been translated into 34 languages. Usage of the HON Code logo is aggressively policed by organizations such as Quackwatch, a US-based watchdog group that aims to combat fallacies, myths, misconduct and fraud in the global health industry. Incidentally, Quackwatch is also one of the most authoritative medical websites where you get answers to questions related to health fraud and quackery.
Find out if a medical website complies with the HON Code of Conduct by looking for the HON Code logo at the bottom of the site’s page.
Click through and visit HON to confirm that the website is actually listed and isn’t displaying the logo fraudulently. The following is a list of a few health information sites that are HON Code certified. Most of the content on these sites is written by, vetted, and reviewed by medical professionals:
If you are using Firefox, you can also install the HON Toolbar which identifies HON Code certified sites while browsing.
Government/UN Run Websites
As a general rule, sites run by the United Nations, national governments and government agencies also provide reliable medical information and advice. Examples of such sites include; World Health Organization (WHO), MedlinePlus, Healthfinder.gov and many more country-specific websites.
Many of these websites are great for looking up conditions and symptoms. They are also great resources to read up on general health information such as epidemic alerts, inoculation and travel advice.
The Take Away
At the end of the day, you should always seek the services of a registered medical professional. Self-diagnosis and self-medication are not recommended and can actually put your life at risk. Make use of services like HealthTap to connect with real doctors.
For your general health knowledge and information on diseases, only use sites that are HON Code certified. But, please take note that while HON Code certified sites are reliable sources of general medical information, they are not a substitute for a real consultation with a medical professional.
Have you been ill lately and needed medical advice online? How did you go about it? Do you know where you can find reliable medical advice online in your country? Please share with us in the comments below.
Image Credits: Heartbeat Via Shutterstock