Monday, November 5, 2007

Be Careful When Searching the Internet

As a hypochondriac, I'm sure you have often searched the Internet for diseases and conditions that you fear you may have, or because you know someone who has something that you want to make sure you don't have.

And, in this blog, I have often urged you to do your own research on diseases so you'll be knowledgeable.

However, be careful. An article I came across on the Internet, while not recent, is still worth reading, even several years later. The point of the article is to be cautious when you search for medical information on the Internet.

The author refers to a study (whose link is now outdated, another problem with Internet research) that cited several problems with finding reliable health care information on the web:

"Two reasons have to do with the knowledge and skill of web users. Many consumers' ability to locate and evaluate health information online is hindered by access barriers for older, less well off, disabled, and non-English speaking Americans. Many people also lack critical thinking skills, having problems distinguishing credible health information from that which is not trustworthy.

The study also found problems with the web itself. Many web sites contain inaccurate, outdated or incomplete information. And of particular note, the study found that many consumers had a lack of knowledge about how search engines retrieve results, and didn't realize that paid placements listings can be featured prominently on search engine result pages without regard to quality."

In my experience with researching medical subjects on the Internet, I use the following "rules" when I search:
  • Never use information from a site that is also a source to purchase an herbal or pharmaceutical product.
  • Always look for mainstream sites such as the ones listed down the side of this blog in order to do your primary research on a disease or condition, e.g., The CDC, The Mayo Clinic, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, National Institutes of Health, etc.
  • Be sure to check the dates of the information you find. An article that may have been perfectly true several years ago may be hopelessly outdated now; some of these articles live forever on line.
  • Before believing any information you find, be sure that it is consistent with the preponderance of data you find on the major medical sites. If you see some miraculous cure for something that is not mentioned elsewhere, take it with a large grain of salt.
  • Whenever possible, if an article you find references a medical study, go to the original study to confirm the findings. Articles written for laypeople often "dumb down" the results of a study, or emphasize one aspect of it without covering the whole picture. Pub Med is a good source to look up medical studies, or you can search for the name of the study on Google. Even if you don't understand all of the technical language, you can at least double check to make sure the gist of the original article was correct.
  • Beware of quacks. If you find information on a doctor's site that you have no familiarity with, ignore information from that site unless it is backed up by the same data from a reliable source.
  • Never rely solely on the Internet for your diagnosis or treatment. It should only be a tool to help you talk to your doctor when you go for your appointment.

The Internet can be a very useful tool for those who use it wisely. You can learn what the latest treatment protocols are for your condition so you can ask your doctor about them, you can find clinical trials on line, you can learn to understand your disease or condition better, or you can look up your symptoms and find out what they may be caused by.

But be careful out there, as there is still a lot of uncharted territory.

The most important thing is to have a doctor you trust, who really listens to you when you tell them what is wrong.


Chrysalis Angel said...

Excellent advice.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I only use NIH and ChiroGeek for info. How about doing a post on Complex Regional Pain Syndrome? I have this of the lumbar spine.

Mauigirl said...

I'll certainly consider doing a post on this syndrome - thanks for alerting me to it.

I am thinking of doing one on fibromyalgia as well.