Nearly 75% adult Internet users (and 85% of parents) search online for health information. Often, we are looking for information, not for ourselves, but on behalf of someone else, so-called “peer-to-peer health.” What is peer-to-peer health? It is the way most people share health advice. Realistically, if you do not feel well, the first person you tell is either a family member or friend. The second “person” who knows you are not feeling well is your internet browser search box. The doctor is actually the third and last person you tell about your problem!
With so many people having internet access and smart phones searching medical topics, it is important to ask, “Can I trust the information?” The answer, of course, depends upon where you look.
In my practice, I encourage and even teach my patients how to use the internet for health information. Online health information may have been dubious in the past, but today, the internet is the world’s best and largest library of medical information.
Most people begin an online health query with a common search engine such as Google. I think of the search box as the front door to a huge global medical practice, “Dr. Google and Associates.”
Now in this practice there are some very “senior partners,” old-school family doctors, such as WebMD.com, MayoClinic.com, and MedlinePlus.gov. These are great, unbiased sites, and they established the virtual practice. They are good for all ages from paediatrics to geriatrics. The information is reliable, comprehensive and all-purpose, across multiple fields of health and disease.
At the same time, there are many other “associates” in the practice. These are mostly disease-specific specialists, and they have very targeted interests; and sometimes, they have their own agendas. For example, cancer.org, americanheart.org, diabetes.org, and alzheimers.gov. These associates are dedicated to an illness and tend provide a more focused discussion of a topic. Often they may have opinions and research that run deeper than the senior partners listed above.
Finally, it is important to know that there is always a “Managing Partner” for this practice. Someone who listens to the people and can provide a balanced opinion between the senior generalist and junior specialist. The managing partner would be wikipedia.com.
Now you might think that a disease wiki may not be reliable, but at this time, Wikipedia is so well established and maintained that its health information is often the most up to date. And since the material is crowd-sourced and -verified, it becomes nearly impossible to add unreliable information on either the most common or the most rare of diseases. In fact, some medical schools are now giving course credit to medical students to not only edit disease wikis, but to also help share the information globally via cell phones.
Once you begin trusting the internet, even more doors can open with great information. Twitter is an amazing resource for health once you learn the hashtag system (e.g., breast cancer social media is #bcsm). The US Centers for Disease Control (www.CDC.gov) even maintains a growing hashtag directory, or you can go to symplur.com, a site dedicated to healthcare social media. Speaking as an expat, the CDC site is an amazing health information resource for global travellers, covering regional diseases and necessary vaccinations.
But what about that website you found that suggests a perspective that is not so mainstream? Perhaps a very expensive and miraculous cure for a terrible disease. A treatment no one offers except in a far away land. What do we do with this information? Well, there are indeed unscrupulous sites (and doctors) that prey upon patient fears (and hypochondria) so it is best to remember the old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And if you still are not sure, reach out to your doctor by email, or just send me a tweet via @drsteventucker.
This article has been published in Singapore-American News, December 2013 issue.