Iam not a hypochondriac. I am cautious about my health (I force myself to do the usual gym and try and keep some—not all—of my vices in check), but I am not obsessive about it. Earlier this year I had a dizzy spell that was quite unnerving. My excellent GP diagnosed the problem immediately, advised a few scans and tests, prescribed medication, and said, “Nothing to worry about. Carry on with whatever you’ve been doing.” But doctors often don’t have time to explain things in great detail. So to get a clearer idea of the ailment and the long-term effects, if any, I visited two health websites, and as a result I know a lot more about this condition.
In the pre-Internet era, many families would refer to the Reader’s Digest Family Health Guide and Medical Encyclopedia. We still have a tattered copy lying somewhere around. But these days, I must confess I google the symptoms: either before I go to my GP, or after my visit to get information to supplement what he tells me. Discreetly, I also do it for other members of the family if they fall ill.
Instant medicine: Use websites for information, not diagnosis
I’m not alone in searching for health information on the Net. According to the “Pew Internet & American Life Project”, 2011, report on health by the Pew Research Center,“Eight in 10 Internet users (among all those tracked by the Pew Internet Project in the US) look online for health information, making it the third most popular online pursuit”, the first two being email and search engine.
Research by the London School of Economics (LSE) on behalf of Bupa, a large British healthcare organization, reveals that “three quarters of Brits (73%) go online for health information, more than six in 10 people (64%) look for information about medicines and over half (58%) self diagnose. Yet, shockingly, only a quarter of people say they check where their online advice has come from.”
The sites I normally visit are WebMD and Mayo Clinic, the former an American corporation and the latter a not-for-profit medical research group. I have come across other health websites such as MedicineNet.com, Healthline.com and FamilyDoctor.org but the ones that I rely on are WebMD and Mayo Clinic—perhaps because I am familiar with their look and feel. I have also visited WebMD to check about our dog’s ear infection before taking her to the vet.
A friend who lives alone recently sent me a mail with a link to a health website where you can get “explanation on almost all ailments”. Like many people I know, he goes to the Net to diagnose symptoms if he thinks he’s coming down with something he doesn’t understand before he sets up an appointment with a doctor. He also added a word of caution: “Forwarding with some reluctance, maybe best to see a doc rather than research on the Net.”
The link was to MedlinePlus , a health website with solid credentials: It’s produced by the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library, which is a component of the US National Institutes of Health. They have launched it “for patients and their families and friends” to enable them to get information “in language you can understand”.
Personally, I find both WebMD and Mayo Clinic on a par; they have an easy-to-use symptom checker, and give you an idea of possible treatments. MedlinePlus, on the other hand, directed me to a number of websites where you can get the latest medical research on your topic. It’s a sort of one-stop source and contains “carefully selected links to Web resources with health information on over 900 topics”. They also have interactive tutorial and surgery videos.
Science magazines like Psychology Today and Scientific American say that there’s a danger of online diagnosis leading to obsessive fear. Three years ago, Microsoft did a study of Web-related health searches and said that there is a good probability of a search for “headache” leading to “brain tumor” as a possible cause, and of “chest pain” to “heart attack”. You can very easily misdiagnose your symptoms online.
I am not a “cyberchondriac”, a term for people who self-diagnose their symptoms on the Internet. I try to understand the symptoms—if it’s more than the normal flu—to arm myself with informed questions for the doctor. He’s smart: He knows I’ve been trawling the Net.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at email@example.com