Online Health Info: Fact Or Fiction?

By Chelle Cordero

December 23, 2013 5 min read

It's been said that sometimes a little knowledge is dangerous. It is easy to look up health care information online, but is self-diagnosis using the information you find the healthy thing to do?

Internet sites that offer "a healthy dose of FREE medical info" also can cause a lot of anxiety and "cyberchondria" (Internet-induced hypochondria). Search engines can also cause confusion as search terms find URLs that are not necessarily medically related. The Internet has had a significant influence on the patient-doctor relationship, as well as on self-diagnosis and the use of over-the-counter treatments.

The content of medical Internet sites may be skewed by its sponsors. A good guide to the purpose of a site is the domain suffix. The U.S. government funds websites with addresses ending in ".gov." Educational institutes maintain ".edu" sites. Noncommercial organizations' addresses often use ".org" and ".com" denotes a commercial organization.

Pharmaceutical sites might recommend their medications in hopes that patients will ask their doctors for prescriptions. Educational sites tend to be heavy on research and data collection. Check the credentials of the contributing professionals to help gauge the accuracy of the information provided. Informed patients can improve the care they receive, but it is important never to rely on a single source for information.

The Internet and mobile health apps are helpful tools that empower a patient to advocate for his own well-being, and they may help to reduce the overall cost of health care when kept in perspective. Confusing medical terminology can be simplified, and pertinent questions may come to mind when conditions are researched online. This can be an effective step in the overall process.

However, online information must be reviewed with a hint of skepticism and should never supersede information and directions provided by a bona fide medical doctor. Because symptoms may be relevant to more than one ailment, effective diagnostics, such as those a doctor's office could provide, may be necessary to correctly identify a condition.

In 2008, Westchester County (N.Y.) introduced its "It's My Healthcare" initiative in hopes of making communication easier between the layperson and medical professionals. "With all the confusing medical terminology nowadays, many people get flustered when they go to the doctor and usually remember the questions they wanted to ask after they leave the office,'' said former County Executive Andy Spano. The Westchester site provides explanations of various diseases and conditions and gives helpful information on available resources, as well as forms to help a person prepare questions to bring with them to the doctor's office. The experience is designed to foster a beneficial partnership between doctor and patient.

Other sites such as allow viewers to match symptoms with possible ailments and treatments and determine whether or not it is a true emergency. Many conditions have similar symptoms, though. Queries about headaches, for example, may give results including migraines, sinusitis, high blood pressure, diabetes, malocclusion, sleep apnea, sunburn, mumps and even constipation. There is a disclaimer and some good advice on WebMD, which warns that the information on their site is " ... not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD site."

MedlinePlus is the website for the National Institutes of Health: It is produced by the National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus is an up-to-date resource for information on drugs, supplements and the latest treatments. There are also medical videos and links to the latest research on your chosen topic. National Library of Medicine Director Dr. Donald Lindberg verifies that MedlinePlus is updated daily and that there is no advertising on the site and no endorsement of any company or product. There are more than 900 diseases, illnesses, health conditions and wellness issues discussed on Medline Plus. But even with daily updating, every visitor is an individual whose symptoms or condition may not be fully addressed with the available information.

A licensed doctor is the best resource for comprehensive treatment. The best outcome is achieved when patients and doctors understand and cooperate with each other.

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