Question of the Week
My friend is having a bad cough and is afraid to go to the doctor. She checked on the Internet and saw that it might be lung cancer. I told her that you can’t trust medical information on the Internet. Am I right?
-- Chandra M., S/J
More and more people are looking for health information online, in order to get quick answers, to avoid going to doctors, and for other reasons. While having access to health information can be helpful, you must be careful about self-diagnosis based on online information. It is easy to get carried away and suspect a dangerous or rare disease, especially when searching online. For example, searching for "headache" might bring up online articles about brain tumors. Some people become very anxious when looking up their symptoms online and are preoccupied about having a serious disease - this sounds like what your friend is experiencing. There is even a name for this online phenomena: cyber-chondria.
Previously, we didn't have access to all this excessive medical information. We didn't worry as much! Your friend's cough is more likely caused by the seasonal flu, especially in this time of the year. However, I am not a medical doctor and therefore this is again just one more opinion. To be sure, and to rid herself of the scary thoughts, she should check with a health professional. She can even print out the information that she found on the Internet and discuss it with the doctor.
A plethora of websites provide health and medical information. Some information is useful and reliable, but much of it is misleading, wrong, or even harmful. Remember that anyone can publish anything on the Internet; the fact that it's out there does not mean that it's credible or true. So when looking at a health-related website - or any other website - it is useful to check who runs the website, who pays for it, and for what purpose. Check out the "About us" or "About this site" section of the website.
Even if a health website is very popular, it might not have genuine intentions. Some websites - such as the popular WebMD - are sponsored by giant pharmaceutical companies and have a commercial agenda, so they will often steer users towards drugs or surgery, when in fact basic lifestyle solutions (diet, exercise, rest, etc.) are healthiest.
Here are three of my favourite websites for health-related information, which are considered trust-worthy:
MedlinePlus (nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus) is run by the US National Library of Medicine and provides useful reliable, and ad-free information about hundreds of health topics, including medical drugs, for consumers.
Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.com/health-information), one of the best hospital systems in the world, runs a useful, balanced, and reliable website. The website also features a Symptom Checker.
CDC (www.cdc.gov), the website of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has excellent information on disease outbreaks, child vaccinations and travelers' health.
To summarize: While some websites are useful and educational, they are meant to complement - not replace - a doctor.
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