How to Look Up Medical Information Online
“Would you take health advice from a stranger on the street? If you wouldn’t, then don’t go to an online forum either,” says Anthony M. Cocco, a doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, and the lead author on a recent scientific study about the search habits of people before they show up in an E.R. Stick to vetted, well-sourced information, like that found on hospital or university websites. “The deeper you go, the poorer quality information you’ll find,” says Cocco, who suggests sticking to the first page of results.
Public-health experts have long been concerned about possible negative outcomes from researching health issues online. One person might come down with “cyberchondria,” or the irrational fear of some phantom illness; conversely, another might let a real illness go untreated. The trust between doctors and patients might break down. But in his research, Cocco found a different phenomenon: nearly 80 percent of the patients who looked up things online before seeing a doctor reported that their searches actually improved their experience. They were better able to articulate their symptoms and understand what doctors told them.
If you feel confident you can discern the difference between high- and low-quality information, search away. “I encourage my younger or tech-savvy patients to go online,” Cocco says. Otherwise, proceed with caution. Make sure a site is not trying to sell you a product or cure. Know that some medical terms will produce more accurate results than others. In one study, researchers found that only one of the top 54 results for “endometriosis” — the subject of over 4.5 million searches annually — led to a page that contained what was deemed to be accurate information about the condition. But Cocco recommends skipping the kind of scientific papers you might find on Google Scholar or PubMed; they often contain unusual cases and bewildering terminology.
If you’re concerned about something you saw online — searches often turn up worst-case scenarios — tell your doctor. Cocco finds it is easier to reassure patients if he knows exactly what it is they’re scared of. Trust your ability to triage yourself. “If you have an acute condition, just call the ambulance,” he says. “Don’t sit there for 20 minutes googling it first.”