Bothered by a lump, a nagging pain or mysterious lump? Chances are, a diagnosis is just a click away. From symptom checkers to illness-specific forums, tons of health information is now available on the web—and a 2012 Pew study found that 93 million Americans have looked there. But can Dr. Google be trusted?
“Searching online for symptoms and diagnoses can become a very dangerous, frustrating and confusing process,” says Dr. Harlan Weinberg, author of Dr. Weinberg’s Guide to the Best Resources on the Web. “That’s why it’s important to develop a discerning eye for evaluating health websites.”
One of the biggest pitfalls of self-diagnosing via the web is that it can create undue medical anxiety, or “cyberchondria,” if you discover, for example, that your twitching eyelid could be a sign of Parkinson’s disease (only in very, very rare cases). “You research symptoms and learn about a particular disease and immediately imagine a worst-case scenario,” says Dr. Carolyn Clancy, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).
But when used wisely, the Internet can be an incredibly potent tool, empowering you to be champion of your own healthcare.
“More responsibility is shifting to the patients, and I think doctors welcome this,” Clancy says. “At the end of the day, physicians’ jobs are so much easier when they are dealing with patients who are informed and who want to be involved in their own healthcare.”
Nearly anyone can claim to be a health expert on the Internet, Weinberg warns. So how can you sort out the good, the bad and the quacks online? Dixie A. Jones, president of the Medical Library Association, offers these guidelines on what to watch for when browsing health-related sites.
Current dates: “The health website should be frequently up- dated and should indicate the date of the latest revision,” Jones says. Look for these dates at the bottom of the home page.
The site’s owner: Any dependable health website should make it easy to recognize who is funding the website and its content—if it’s hard to find, that’s a red flag. Look for web addresses that end in .gov, .edu or .org, which indicates government, educational or professional organizations rather than commercial sites. You can typically find details about owner- ship on a site’s “About Us” page.
Possible bias: It’s important to recognize who is sponsoring the site and what their intent is. “Is a particular product being promoted? Does the site sell that product? Or is the information provided by a publicly funded, non-com- mercial site such as a government agency or research hospital?” Jones says.
Detailed facts and resources: “The information provided on the web- site should be from a credible source, such as a medical association, an ac- credited educational institution, a professional journal with an editorial board or a government agency. Look at other sites on the same topic to see if the in- formation is confirmed elsewhere,” says Jones. Be skeptical of testimonials from untraceable sources, or overly technical jargon on a site directed at consumers.
Measured language: If the site makes claims that sound too good to be true, they probably are. Other bad signs: a promise of quick or miraculous results, or sensational, over-the-top writing.
Although the Internet can be a valuable tool for accessing health resources, if you truly suspect something is off, your best bet is to consult a living, breathing doctor. “There are certain discussions that have to occur in person,” Weinberg says. “No computer can substitute for that.”
Best Health Sites:
On his own website, Knowledgeofmedicine.com, Dr. Harlan Weinberg maintains a comprehensive list of credible health websites. Here are some of his top picks:
- Cardiosmart.org, American College of Cardiology
- Hearthealthywomen.org, Heart Healthy Women Coalition
- Strokecenter.org, The Internet Stroke Center, Washington University
- Patients.thoracic.org, American Thoracic Society
- Onebreath.org, American College of Chest Physicians
- Lung.org, American Lung Association
- Diabetes.org, American Diabetes Association
- Ndep.nih.gov, National Diabetes Education Program
- Joslin.org, Joslin Diabetes Center