Maybe it’s happened to you. It starts with a nagging ache, an odd rash or a persistent cough. You don’t seek medical help too quickly to avoid looking like a hypochondriac — and at the same time, don’t want to wait too long. Nobody wants to ask a doctor the proverbial stupid question, and everyone wants to avoid an emergency room bill at all costs, so to speak.
Increasingly, people turn to the Internet, a great storehouse of medical knowledge, treatment options and opinions. The Pew Research Center found that almost 60 percent of adults using the Internet searched for health information in the past year. I’m one of them. Sometimes I’ve found the answer online, or found something to better describe my symptoms to have a more productive conversation with a doctor.
But for every answered question, there is the risk that visiting “Dr. Google” first can result in finding too much information, subjective opinions or treatment options that almost “quack.”
There’s even a condition for those with an “excessive preoccupation with health information” found on the Internet — cyberchondria.
What can help you sort out helpful information from medical red herrings?
Use the Internet as a tool, not a substitute. In the Pew study, more than a third of participants reported looking online to determine the medical condition for themselves or a friend. Of those, only 41 percent said a doctor confirmed their online diagnosis. Practicing self-diagnosis without consulting a professional who can look, ask, poke and test can lead to problems or too-frequent doctor visits. The Medical Library Association has helpful evaluation guidelines.
Practice preparation. I suffer from physician-assisted amnesia: When I see the doctor I suddenly forget all that I wanted to ask. Use your research to write down symptoms and questions, which is a good practice even without the Web.
Visit trustworthy sites. When I research a computer issue, I find several opinions. Some solutions work, some are useless or extreme and some are dangerous. The same can be said for medical sites. Use a quality general site such as MayoClinic.com, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health rather than Bing or Google. These can help find condition-specific sites, if needed. Government sites, medical or not-for-profit organizations and university medical centers are more reliable and are not trying to sell you anything. Non-government sites that carry the HONcode seal are certified by the Health On the Net Foundation.
Carefully use apps. Currently, more than an estimated 40,000 health and medical smartphone apps exist to do about anything — test sight and hearing, monitor blood pressure, diagnose depression, view medical images and, of course, self-diagnose. They vary in reliability; several apps diagnosing skin cancer recently were found to misdiagnose 30 percent or more of the time. There is little government regulation of these apps. Happtique and iMedicalApps are leaders in trying to organize and rate them. Investigate who created them, if they are frequently updated, endorsements and how they compare to similar apps.
Carefully utilize friends. They may be good at recommending restaurants, books and movies but friends aren’t necessarily authorities on diagnosis and treatments. The electronic word of mouth known as social media can help ask useful questions. Yet, they do not have a degree, cannot evaluate, and may be relying on long-ago personal experiences. Worse is the person with a chronic disease who receives unsolicited “answers” based on daytime television.
One exception can be specialized support groups. Health professionals, ministers, state and national organizations and Internet searches can help you find one.
Ask questions first about cost, confidentiality, the facilitator and schedules. Online, be careful about oversharing personal information and sites that prey or sell products.
Recently my sister-in-law faced a serious health issue. My brother was initially overwhelmed with online information. They consulted specialists. The family created a “Pray for Janice” Facebook page to request prayers and share updates. That led to a connection with a disease-specific organization that provided peace and a helpful treatment roadmap that involved her doctor evaluating treatments.
Supplement your medical searches with the Internet, using careful diligence, and input from professionals and others who have already walked in your shoes.
Add social media for support, ideas and most of all, prayers.
Don’t Be a Cyberchondriac: Use the Internet to Self-Screen, Not Self-Diagnose (Psychology Today)
How to Find the Best Medical Information Online (SavvySenior.org)
Have a pressing medical question? There’s an app for that (CBS News)
Medical Apps: Gambling With Your Health (Consumers Digest)
Support groups: Make connections, get help (MayoClinic.com)
Ken Satterfield is marketing coordinator for Word&Way and formerly a media consultant for the Missouri Baptist Convention.