It’s become commonplace — when Americans feel the first symptoms of illness, many will check online health sites before heading to see a doctor. But is this ready accessibility of health information — from sources valid and not so much — actually helpful? In a recent USA Today article, Steve Wood explores the the good and the bad of our habit of Googling our symptoms instead of relying on a visit to the doctor’s office.
On the one hand, online health information and message boards provide free support and advice to patients who may not be able to afford or make time for a visit to the clinic. And even for those who have no trouble getting to a doctor’s office, these sites can sometimes provide valuable information and ideas that may give users a sense of what to expect when they do arrive at the doctor’s office.
As Dr. Bonnie Levin, a family practitioner in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, points out, “sometimes you learn a little too much and you diagnose yourself with something you don’t have.” Indeed, this type of self-diagnosis can often lead a person to believe he has the most devastating condition possible, and can be more anxiety-inducing than helpful. And given that there’s no shortage of inaccurate information on the Internet, the average person is often ill-equipped to determine whether the source she’s stumbled upon is reliable.
“Unfortunately,” ACSH’s Dr. Gilbert Ross notes, “as with everything accessible on the Web, the source of information needs to be thoroughly vetted for accuracy. Sometimes, free information is worth what you pay for it. Caveat emptor — buyer, or in this case, surfer, beware — is never more apt than when seeking health information.”