Checking health symptoms online: best websites and what to avoid
- Searching the internet for your health symptoms can help, according to these doctors, but you must look for reputable sources
- Beware claims backed by anecdotes rather than scientific studies
When Ea Holm feels unwell or experiences unusual health symptoms, she sometimes consults the internet. As a resident of Lamma Island in Hong Kong, seeing a doctor means having to travel some distance, so she avoids it if she can. Another reason she searches for her symptoms online is that she does not always trust doctors to diagnose her correctly.
“In my experience, doctors don’t spend nearly enough time listening to me and examining my symptoms, and they often misdiagnose,” she says. “After looking up my symptoms online and coming up with a diagnosis I’ll go to the doctor to get it confirmed. But without my suggestion of a diagnosis I’ve found that the doctors tend to jump to conclusions, maybe because they’re under a lot of pressure.”
Holm suffers from an uncomfortable autoimmune condition called lichen sclerosus, which affects the skin. To prove her point, she says that she was incorrectly diagnosed for the disease three times by three doctors before she decided to check her symptoms on Google.
When she went back to one of the doctors and told him what it might be, he agreed with her. In fact, he was rather excited because lichen sclerosus is rare and he had only ever come across it once before. Without her suggestion, Holm says she wonders how much time would have passed before she had got the right diagnosis and treatment.
We are often advised against searching for our medical symptoms online. Doctors tell us that it can cause confusion or make us unnecessarily pessimistic or worried about our condition.
More dangerously, it can lead to incorrect self-diagnoses and prevent us from seeking proper medical help or advice.
But an Australian study published in August in The Medical Journal of Australia found that people who consulted the internet about their medical problem before attending the emergency department were actually better informed about their condition when they finally got to see a doctor.
“Specifically, patients reported they were more able to ask informed questions, communicate effectively and understand their health provider,” the researchers said.
The study also found that searching for health care information online did not reduce the patients’ confidence in the doctors’ diagnoses, nor did it reduce the patients’ adherence to treatment.
Of course, the patients in the study mostly visited trusted websites, like those of hospitals and universities, and online encyclopaedias. And that is exactly where many of us who Google our medical symptoms run into trouble.
“The internet is a good and easily accessible resource for getting information quickly, however a lot of medical information online is not verified by professionals or health authorities,” says Dr Gordon Cheung Chak-man, a general practitioner at The London Medical Clinic in Hong Kong’s Central district.
“Websites often give long lists of possible diagnoses for certain symptoms. Some people may incorrectly diagnose themselves and feel falsely reassured, which may delay them seeking medical advice for serious conditions. Others may become unnecessarily worried about a condition that they think is serious or life threatening. This can have a great impact on their psychological well-being.”
People are also naturally unwilling to look too critically at information they want to believe. This may prevent them from getting the most effective treatment for their condition, says Dr Jason Brockwell, an orthopaedic hip surgeon at Asia Medical Specialists in Hong Kong. “For example, they may not want to destroy their hopes of an easy cure by an unproven but relatively easy treatment,” he says.
Furthermore, diagnosing and managing a medical condition sometimes requires more than just checking off a list of symptoms, Cheung adds. Doctors may need to look into the patient’s medical history, carry out a physical examination and even carry out additional investigations. These, he says, cannot be replaced by an online diagnosis.
If you want to play Dr Google, you should at least stick to reputable web sources. Brockwell says that there are ways to recognise good medical information online.
“The Health On the Net Foundation, based in Switzerland, attempts to certify medical information – look for the HONcode logo on health websites,” he says.
“Ideally, medical statements should be supported by references to the medical literature. An article that supports each major claim with a reference is making a good start. Readers can then look up the original articles and attempt to assess the original data. Wikipedia provides a great example of articles supported by references. Most of the medical information on Wikipedia is accurate.”
Brockwell adds that those of a more scientific bent can search for medical literature abstracts on Medline, a free service provided by the US National Library of Medicine, while Google Scholar is another useful resource.
“Accurate information is also found on websites run by reputable organisations; government organisations such as the US Centres for Disease Control or the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; professional bodies such as the American Academy of Paediatrics; reputable publications; institutions such as the Mayo Clinic; or research and education foundations,” he says.
Brockwell explains that you know you have found bad or unreliable information when the claims are backed by individual anecdotes rather than scientific studies. “This should always make you suspicious because if there was a scientific study to support a claim, the authors would share it with us.”
Whatever information you find online, it is smart to share it with your doctor – whether you are sure of it or not.
“An informed patient is likely to do better,” Brockwell says. “Even if you discover unscientific information, discussing it with your doctor should increase understanding for the both of you. If your doctor is able to respond to your questions or concerns in an appropriate manner, it will improve your confidence in the doctor, and the doctor should gain an insight into your concerns and beliefs. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily require an internet search for this kind of discussion, but a visit to the internet often precipitates such a discussion.”
Holm says that she feels more empowered when she checks her symptoms online. This, she believes, helps with the healing process.
“Leaving my fate in someone else’s hands gives me a feeling of despair, which is not conducive to healing,” she says.
“Having said that, if you want to rely on the internet for medical information it’s important to have some knowledge of how the body works and of pathologies. You should also apply some common sense, and of course if you’re not sure about what you’ve read then you should definitely speak to a doctor.”