· Illustration by Neil Webb
Medical information on the Internet can easily create confusion and anxiety. Here’s how to be a calm consumer of online health advice.
Expert Source: Richard Senelick, MD, neurologist and author, whose essay “Cyberchondria: How the Internet Is Making Us Paranoid About Health” appeared in the Huffington Post.
Faced with a niggling symptom or a serious diagnosis, many of us turn to the Internet to learn as much as we can about our potential condition. With insurance deductibles sky-high, we search for symptoms and treatments, often looking for ways to address, say, athlete’s foot without a $700 trip to the doctor.
Confronted with a more serious diagnosis, we may seek out alternative treatment options — including ones our doctors might not use or know about. Yet this can quickly leave us feeling overwhelmed.
A search of “diabetes,” for example, produces more than 250 million results. In addition to the website for the American Diabetes Association, there are scores of medical studies, sensational news stories, personal blogs, and forums where symptoms and therapies are discussed at length.
Given the surfeit of information out there — and so much of it questionable — where can we find practical insight? How do we avoid falling down the rabbit hole of contradictory information? And how do we keep from scaring ourselves silly?
The Internet can provide resources that no single doctor can offer, notes physician and author Richard Senelick, MD, but he recommends that you use it carefully. It’s critical to remember that you — and your condition — are unique.
Challenges to Overcome
- Too much information. When you search for medical information online, thousands of results appear for nearly every health condition. “It can feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose,” says Senelick. The impulse to learn as much as possible can quickly lead to information overload, not to mention anxiety about conditions that may not apply to you.
- Misinformation. Within that gushing fountain of data there’s likely to be plenty of misleading and downright erroneous information from sites promoting remedies that play to our hopes and fears.
- Catastrophic thinking. “Many people think brain tumor when they get a headache, especially if they’re not used to having headaches,” Senelick says. “Then they start looking at sites or going into chat rooms, and they begin thinking, I really didn’t give it much thought, but maybe I did lose my balance last week. And I did get dizzy a couple of weeks ago. You can start to collect symptoms.”
- Vulnerability. If you’re ill — or believe you might be — you may be in a vulnerable state of mind. This could make you more prone to catastrophic thinking and more likely to grasp at dubious solutions.
- The “truthiness” of first-person accounts. We’re easily swayed by personal accounts of illness because they invite us to identify and empathize with the speaker’s situation. But someone else’s experience is not necessarily applicable to you, and these stories are not always true. “Blogs, chatrooms, support groups, or anywhere people tend to talk about themselves can be valuable and helpful, but keep in mind it’s all unvetted information,” Senelick points out.
- Substituting Dr. Google for a visit to an actual health professional. Office visits can be expensive, so it may be tempting to self-diagnose and self-treat rather than make an in-person appointment. This can be fine in less serious situations, like removing a splinter or handling mild morning sickness. But when symptoms are persistent, it’s best to get information from an actual healthcare provider, says Senelick — someone who can evaluate your symptoms in the proper context.
Strategies for Success
- Look to reputable sources. In general, sites operated by university medical centers and major research hospitals, like Mayo Clinic, are the best places to search. Not only do these institutions have access to the latest research as well as researchers to conduct their own studies, but they have long-standing reputations to protect. The same is true for condition-specific national organizations, like the American Cancer Society.
- Resist overidentifying with what you learn. “If you’re getting worried as you read online, ask yourself, How much information do I really have about what’s going on?” Senelick says. “Have you been to the doctor? Have you had tests?”
- Monitor your body’s response. Be aware of how you’re feeling as you read. “If you get anxious, it’s simple,” he says. “Stop reading. Take a break. Take a walk.”
- Know the limitations. “You need to remember that Google is a machine,” Senelick explains. “It doesn’t have judgment or experience; it can’t put what you’re feeling in the context of you and your life. If you’re constipated, it doesn’t know that you’ve been sitting at your desk for three months straight.”
- Keep things in context. When you’re reading first-person accounts on blogs or chatrooms, “what you’re going to get is the blogger’s or poster’s experience and how they dealt with the condition,” says Senelick. “Maybe you can draw something from it, but your life and, in particular, your condition, are likely different.”
- Use a nurse hotline instead of Google. Nurse hotlines allow you to talk to a medical professional for free. A nurse can ask questions about your symptoms and recommend a course of action, which might include making an appointment with a doctor. And if you find yourself in a Web-induced health panic, a nurse can talk you off that ledge — he or she has likely heard something similar before.
- Focus on general information. One of the best uses of the Web, Senelick suggests, is to inform yourself in general about a diagnosis. Visit a reputable site, and always keep in mind that your symptoms, and your solutions, may differ from what you read.
Illustration by Neil Webb