As the health system comes under increasing strain with COVID-19, it’s getting harder to see a doctor face to face. Checkups and pathology test numbers are down. Internet searches are up.
While Telehealth is beginning to fill the gap (with video appointments now possible between GPs and patients), many people are leaving their Medicare cards in their wallets and turning to Dr Google instead.
If you can ignore the lack of bedside manner, Dr Google is fast, convenient and cheap. But how do you know you’re getting good information online? Medical information can be out of date, unsubstantiated or just plain wrong.
Information or knowledge?
It’s natural to seek more information when we’re feeling overwhelmed by disasters or medical problems, but too much information isn’t always a good thing – it can be overwhelming in itself. Quality is the key.
As with most of the internet, American data dominates the medical information sphere. If possible, try to work out where the money is coming from for the sites you visit.
Clickbait ads should ring alarm bells. If someone is profiting from selling something associated with the website, any information should be taken with an extra grain of salt.
Does the person behind the site or app have any qualifications? Are their sources listed? Do the sources look reputable? Are the testimonials real? If you can’t tell, the answer is probably no.
Where to start?
Some US sites, particularly the government ones, do have very useful information. The National Institute of Health site is a good place to start. Medline Plus is part of the National Library of Medicine and contains over 1,000 health-related topics. These are sites your own doctor is likely to check if he or she is stumped.
Many of the major international medical journals are also available online, but sometimes only by subscription. These are peer reviewed, which means the information is likely to be relatively solid, but are full of jargon designed for medical professionals.
If you’re seeking medical information on behalf of someone else (perhaps a very ill person or someone who is not internet-savvy) it’s important to start with as much accurate information as possible.
The quality of information you get out of the internet depends a lot on the quality of the questions you ask, so think carefully about what you need to know and find out how important things are spelled.
21st century snake oil
Does that miracle cure sound too good to be true? It might be. Be scientific in your method and try to find information that questions what you would like to hear – don’t just click on what you agree with. Don’t rely on single sources, no matter how authoritative they seem.
Fact-checking websites (like Snopes) can be useful, but they’re not infallible either, and will often only deal with major pieces of misinformation, not specialised stuff.
Dig deeper. It’s your health at stake, or the health of someone you love.
The main thing to remember is that symptoms and diagnoses are very different things. Worrying symptoms can have a wide range of causes, from the banal to the life-threatening.
DIY web diagnosis can easily miss connections, and combinations of medications and conditions can affect one another in unique ways that can’t be addressed by even the most interactive websites.
Social media is generally not a reliable source of medical information, even if that information is being shared by people you trust and seems persuasive. Everyone’s medical situation is different.
Two heads are better than one
When you get together with your real human doctor, talk to him or her about what you’ve learned on the net. They may roll their eyes, but if you’ve really done your homework it’s possible you’ve learned more than they have about a given situation or condition. Pool your information.
Keep note of any online links you’ve found useful and print anything that seems pertinent to your situation. Bring what you’ve found to your appointment. Remember doctors are very busy and may not always do enough research themselves. Their training goes out of date too.
Prepare questions for your doctor based on what you’ve discovered online.
If any app or site you’re using asks for private medical information, be very careful about what you share, and remember that Google itself has got into trouble for harvesting private information, as has Facebook.
If you want to be really careful, consider using a web browser or search app that cares about your privacy when researching medical matters. Instead of Dr Google, try Dr DuckDuckGo!