IT'S AN OLD Sex and the City joke, but most of us have fallen for it. Feeling a bit under the weather and not wanting to pay the money or spend time visiting a doctor, you type your symptoms into the internet, hit return and bingo. Your seemingly benign symptoms turn out to be terminal. We may be an educated population, but there's something about seeing an opinion in writing that can persuade us we are reading scientific fact rather than speculation or marketing spin designed to sell a product. Turning to the internet, where there's little monitoring of the myriad sites offering diagnosis and suggestions for self-medication, seems a casual approach to something as important as our health, but doctors such as Alvin Chan Yee-shing, who has been practising for 27 years, says patients are turning to the internet in increasing numbers. 'It seems to be quite common practice,' says the paediatrician from his surgery in Mongkok. 'It means the parents are making a judgment, yet they have no training as a doctor. A wrong diagnosis could be disastrous.' Years ago, we'd have had to spend hours combing through specialist books in a library. Now, minutes of research on the internet can make doctors of us all. Learning more about a condition you have or the possible side effects of suggested medications can be a good thing, but the risk is that people are making decisions from a narrow perspective without the full facts or scientific training. The peril of following hope rather than reason becomes greater when people have life-threatening conditions. The internet is home to a host of quackery relating to cancer treatments. Some of it is wasteful in terms of time and money - the former could be especially serious if you delay getting treatment. However some of it is dangerous - such as the suggestion that a strict macrobiotic diet can 'cure' cancer - and could cause unnecessary suffering and even death. Chan points to the effect of the alarming reports about an imminent flu pandemic and the many sites that promote the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu. 'This is a specific medication for influenza but 95 per cent of patients will be suffering from the common cold, not from influenza. Or their symptoms could be the reaction to cold weather, or an allergy, but patients can panic and their instant reaction is to buy such medicine. 'Overuse and abuse of it will cause resistance to build up. We should also be worried about mutation of the virus because then it will become even more resistant to medicine. When the pandemic really arrives, there will be resistant strains of the virus and this sort of medicine becomes useless.' For Shri Chaubal, 37, the internet was his saviour when for two years a succession of doctors misdiagnosed his eye complaint as a routine case of conjunctivitis or glaucoma. A sympathetic GP, who was puzzled by the condition, suggested Chaubel take a look at some online medical sites where he discovered he had kerititus, a chronic but treatable condition. 'It's quite rare for a GP in Hong Kong to suggest this, but it definitely improved my opinion of him and his ability to treat me,' Chaubal says. Given the wealth of information that doctors need to keep up with and the fact that new discoveries about diseases and their treatments are being made all the time, Chan says the internet is an important resource and can be part of a good doctor-patient relationship rather than a threat to it. However, he does urge caution. 'I go to the internet to find materials, but because I'm medically trained, I know what information to select. Otherwise it's like junk mail. You don't know what's important and what's not.' Chaubal, who runs a number of internet sites including Geobaby and Geoexpat, is perhaps more internet savvy than most. He says that before he visits a doctor he usually checks his symptoms online so he goes in with some knowledge of the condition he might have and the treatments available, including possible side effects. He says there have been several occasions when his research has produced what he thinks are better alternatives to diagnoses or prescriptions from GPs. 'It's removing doctors from the pedestals we put them on,' Chaubal says of people's increasing desire to check up on medical advice. Jonathan Gabler, fitness manager at the Pure Fitness gym in Central, finds clients use the internet as a 'cheap, fast and convenient way to gather information'. 'With many health and fitness questions, there can be numerous views, opinions and considerations, so it helps to gather information from a broad range of sources,' he says. However, those sites with a cheesy-looking personal trainer talking about a life-altering supplement or exercise regime that has stupendous results should be treated with the scepticism such outlandish claims deserve. 'Companies will always claim their product is the best,' Gabler says. 'Also, many international trainers are sponsored by supplement companies and are paid to endorse certain equipment manufacturers.' Gym membership or sessions with a nutritionist can rack up serious dollars, but Gabler points out if clients take this course they have a dedicated session with a trained professional. 'It's easy for individuals or companies providing information over the internet to disappear or not reply to questions that may arise from their statements or claims,' he says. 'You can't beat face-to-face, ongoing feedback, support and information.'