Should we look for medical information online, and if so, where?
Well, our doctors might not always like it, but when it comes to searching for health information, there’s just no going backwards: when we have health questions and issues today, we are likely to turn to the internet first in our quest for information.
Fortunately, there are some good guidelines we can follow to ensure that we’re finding solid, reliable information, and to ensure that we are using that information wisely.
Guideline Number One: No matter how tempting it might be, don’t give into the urge to Google your way to self-diagnosis. Unfortunately, the internet can be a hypochondriac’s paradise, and can make arm-chair doctors of us all, even when, intellectually, we know better. All of us, then, must work to resist the urge to plug our symptoms into Google, expecting to find authoritative explanations for them. In part, it’s the sheer volume of medical information available online that makes the search engine approach unwise. Plugging “fever and cough” into a search engine, after all, will yield thousands of results that are nearly impossible to sort through at all, much less objectively, especially when we or our family members aren’t feeling well. When we believe that our symptoms might indicate something more serious than a common cold, or when we suspect that they have persisted beyond the point at which an ordinary viral illness ought to have run its course, then it’s always best to start our search for answers with a call our doctors’ offices.
Guideline Number Two: Although we should be careful not to let internet sources take the place of expert medical advice from our doctors, we shouldn’t hesitate to use the internet to become better informed health consumers: When we are trying to decide whether or not to see a doctor, when we actually have a solid diagnosis in hand, when we are scheduled to undergo a specific test, or when we’ve been prescribed a particular drug, then there are some high quality internet resources available that can help us learn more about all of these things.
Here are a handful of these “best in class” online medical resources for consumers:
- Close to home resources: Turn to your local hospital’s website. Many local hospitals offer resources such as physician search tools, patient guides, and links to solid consumer information. These resources have been built with our specific communities in mind, so these sites tend to be excellent places to launch online health research. When we’re looking for health information online, we should definitely keep our local medical institutions in mind.
- Comprehensive Resources: When we just can resist looking for potential explanations of our symptoms prior to making a doctor’s appointment (and many of us really can’t resist!), then WebMD’s interactive symptom checker is a far better place to begin than a general web search could ever be. Best of all, though, this highly regarded site offers thorough and up to date information about treatments and conditions, and encourages web users to stay in close contact with their physicians. WebMD also sponsors Medcape and eMedicine, both of which can also serve as excellent resources for patients, parents, and caretakers.
- Government Resources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site is another that offers complete and authoritative descriptions of conditions, tests, medications, and treatments. What makes this site especially appealing, though, is its overall emphasis on supporting both personal and community health. The National Institutes of Health and National Library of Medicine are similarly good resources, particularly for more in depth reading.
- Resources with Excellent Reputations: A good reputation is hard to earn, and hard to keep. Two resources with solid reputations and names we all undoubtedly recognize are the Merck Manual and Mayo Clinic, both of which offer terrific consumer facing websites.
- A Search Resource: Health on the Net Foundation’s search tool limits its searches to accredited sites. Even with this tool at our disposal, we must of course still always exercise due caution, but it definitely offers a much more manageable set of results than Google tends to, guiding users to independently reviewed sites that meet a clearly defined set of principles for quality and reliability.
Guideline Number Three: Find community support and connection online. When we or our loved ones are suffering from chronic diseases and conditions–or any sort of illness or health challenge–we can find excellent community support online. In this area, the internet really excels. Often, we have a relatively limited amount of time to spend with our busy doctors. They can provide medical information and treatment, but often don’t really have the time or the ability to provide the kind of extensive discussion, interaction, and emotional support we might need or desire when we’re coping with medical issues. Online, we can connect to other parents who share our frustrations and hopes, we can talk to other patients who understand our challenges, and we can bond with other caretakers who truly appreciate the sacrifices and frustrations involved with tending to a chronically ill relative. MedHelp is one of the best sites for fostering this kind of connection. The site offers an extensive variety of discussion forums (some led by physicians, others led by users), provides users with tools to create online medical records, and also makes it easy for users to establish personal blogs to record and explore their health journeys in the company of their online network of peers. Anyone looking for support and understanding about medical issues would do well to visit MeldHelp.
Guideline Number Four: We must keep our teams of medical experts involved. We should let our doctors know about the kind of research we’ve undertaken online. We should ask questions. We should solicit feedback. When we have questions or concerns, we should ask our doctors, our pharmacists, our nurses, and the other experts at our disposal for their input and advice.
The key to using online medical information really well is to make it one part of our overall approach to developing and maintaining health. Even the best, most reliable medical websites are no substitute for the health professionals that know us and our histories personally. We have the opportunity to be more informed than ever, but it’s an opportunity we must exercise responsibly.
AxisPortals Aphorism: Support your health online without putting your health on the line.