How To Find Reliable Medical Information Online

Getting sick seems a lot more stressful now that we have the internet. You can research your symptoms, but inevitably you'll fall down a rabbit hole of illnesses that are so unlikely, every search will turn up a life-threatening disease. It is possible to get reliable, useful information and vet it properly. Here's how.

Before we begin, a disclaimer: We're not doctors. We spoke to several for this story, but don't think you'll be able to walk away from this post able to diagnose your own symptoms. Our goal is to help you find reliable sources to turn to when you have minor aches and injuries, and give you an idea of what's up if you can't get an appointment right away. Keep in mind though, if diagnosis were easy, doctors wouldn't have to train so long to learn how to do it. If you have a serious condition or don't know what's going on, always consult a doctor as soon as possible.

Most Web Sites Are Terrible At Diagnosis

We all know what it's like: you have an ache you're not familiar with, or a bruise suddenly appears and you have no idea where it came from. You fire up Google and type in the symptom, being as specific as you can, and you're instantly overwhelmed by the dozens of possibilities. Unfortunately, no site can diagnose an illness based on symptoms that you type into a search engine. Yes, you probably know if your stomach ache just happened to set in a few hours after visiting an oyster bar, but that's probably not enough. Keep in mind that a heart attack can have symptoms very similar to a bout of bad indigestion, and it can be difficult even for trained and experienced professionals to tell the difference without specific tests.

Every doctor I spoke to for this story warned against using Google for diagnoses, and noted that the world of medical information on the internet will just make you crazy with wonder if you search blindly. The advice you receive will often be contradictory. So what should you do?

Search Smart

In most cases, a cool head is much more valuable than a page full of scary search results. When you're struggling with symptoms, here are some important things to remember:

  • How confident are you that this is minor/major? There's no foolproof way to tell a minor issue from a major one, but indicators such as like pain or discomfort level can help. Try to stay calm, especially if the symptoms are unfamiliar, and think things through. Is it getting better or worse? Have you experienced this before, and how does this time compare? If you think the issue is major or don't know what you're dealing with, seek professional help. If the issue is minor, remind yourself that as you research, so you don't get carried away.
  • Search with Occam's Razor in mind. Several of the doctors I spoke to mentioned that patients often wind up panicking because they matched their symptoms to an extremely unlikely diagnosis. This is one of the biggest issues with searching for medical information: someone with a bad cold may come away thinking they've come down with dengue flu, simply because the basic symptoms are similar. Remember, common conditions are the most likely ones. You're more likely to have a sprained ankle that a broken one; you're more likely to have a headache than an aneurysm. Again, you need leave diagnosis to the pros: see a doctor so they can examine you and run tests if necessary. Remain open to the reality that whatever you found online may not be the actual problem.
  • Learn to tell good medical sources from questionable ones. Any time you search for information online, you need to consider the source. Sites with government backing or specific content written by doctors will always trump random conversations on a forum. Those sites are good precisely because their articles and other content written by, vetted and reviewed by actual medical professionals before they're published. Any time you're reading about health issues, make sure the information was written or at least reviewed by a doctor. Also take care to distinguish between the content of the article and comments, which rarely have the same degree of rigour. Also, make sure the doctors you're reading are experienced in the areas you're researching — a nutritionist can tell you how to eat well, but they can't tell you if your twisted ankle needs heat or cool to get better. Stick to established, trusted sites with authoritative voices, and when in doubt, print out what you're reading and ask your own doctor for the final say. Remember, nothing you read on the internet is a substitute for real, in-person analysis by a physician. It can be informative and useful as a way to talk to your doctor, but never the final word.

After The Diagnosis

If you apply these techniques, your searches will turn up useful data that you can apply immediately, as opposed to vague diagnoses that leave you rattled and afraid. If the issue is minor and you can treat it at home, great — if you see a professional, let them know what you found in your searches, and ask for their opinion. Once you have a real diagnosis, you can Google more effectively. Photo by wavebreakmedia (Shutterstock).

For example, if your doctor says you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) because you've been waking up with heartburn every other night for the past three weeks, you can read all about it, what you can do to adjust to it, and more. Prior to diagnosis though, searching for those symptoms might have convinced you that you had a rare form of stomach cancer.

The web's wealth of medical information is most useful after you have talked to a doctor. Any medical professional doctor will tell you that an educated and engaged patient is easier to deal with, while a self-diagnosing hypochondriac is not. Don't hesitate to do your homework, but go in to conversations with your doctor with an open mind. If you're looking for medical information before seeing a doctor, make sure you take what you find with a grain of salt.


Comments

    My doctor instantly dismisses anything after I say - " I looked it up on the internet"

      I've actually had people start explaining why they called an ambulance with, "Well I was on Google"... and immediately dismiss everything for the next 30 seconds before starting my own assessment. Some of these people are sick, some are fine and are wasting my time, but google has never been right.

      And your doctor would be 100% correct in doing so.

    Just looked on WebMD I'm pregnant and have cancer:'(

      I looked up WMD's and it recommends I have both my testicles removed !?!!

    As a medical student, the amount of information on the Web is overwhleming even for me - there is so much awesome information - you just need to be able to filter and interpret, something which is very difficult for "normal people". Be skeptical of everything you read - there are plenty of kooks out on the internet who are still qualified doctors but I wouldn't trust a word they say! My advice, stick to big reputable sites - Wiki, Medscape, Mayo Clinic etc. Government sites and advocacy groups (e.g. MS Society) are also great!

    It's not lupus. It's never lupus.

    (Sorry, couldn't NOT say that!)

    UpToDate for patients is an easy to understand version of the resource that many doctors use:

    http://www.uptodate.com/patients/index.html

    Dr Google is not your friend. He causes anxiety and worsens symptoms. He obfuscates other, sometimes more important symptoms that prevent you from conveying that information to a trained health professional. A medical student spends 5-6 years at uni learning facts and "how to learn" then you spend the rest of your career as a doctor learning how to recognize the patterns, apply diagnostic and treatment heuristic and fine tuning your BS filter. A quick skim through WebMD or e-medicine won't teach you that.

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