With an endless array of health websites, it’s easier than ever to research possible ailments and remedies. Just Google it, right? Even from your phone, you can look up symptoms and treatment options—maybe. While such research can be a valuable tool for a patient and doctors, these sites can sometimes do more harm than good.
Not too long ago, I saw a patient who had acid reflux and heartburn. Before the appointment, she plugged her symptoms into a health website and found a possible diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. So in the days leading up to the exam, she was worried and stressed out about possibly having cancer. After her exam, I recommended some medication and told her the reflux symptoms should diminish—just like any worry about having cancer. She was a young, otherwise healthy woman who had almost no risk of the dire diagnoses she found on the Web. All her worry and stress was for nothing.
Those websites can’t take into account everything a doctor does during an examination. But the Internet can be a powerful tool to help you stay healthy—if you use it right. Here are some of my dos and don’ts that I recommend to my patients for their online health research:
Browse more than one site. Don’t just look at one source. Part of your research should be finding several reputable sites and compiling lots of information. By comparing information from different sites, you’ll also likely run across some contradictions, and your doctor can help resolve those.
Stick to reputable sites. On many websites, you don’t know who is writing the content. I often refer my patients to government and university or hospital sites. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a wealth of reliable information about immunizations and recommendations for taking care of your health while traveling out of the country.
Follow up appointments with research. Perhaps your doctor recommended a specialist or may have mentioned a course of treatment. I’ll help point patients in the right direction to do additional research to understand diagnoses and treatments.
Leave your research at home. When looking up information about your symptoms, print out what you found and bring it to your appointment. You can sort through the sites together with your doctor.
Rely on website diagnoses for vague symptoms. The less specific your symptoms, the fewer websites are able to provide you accurate information. For example, if one of your symptoms is fatigue, a website may offer a whole host of possible diagnoses, which could be totally wrong.
Think in black and white terms. There are multiple treatments and diagnoses for just about any condition. Don’t become set on an opinion because you found it online. Your doctor should present options and explain the pluses and minuses of each.
Believe additional tests are always required. When you’re researching online, sites may suggest extensive testing, when it may not be needed at all. Just because a website may recommend MRIs or CAT scans, it may be unnecessary. Ask your doctor whether such tests are truly appropriate.