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Should You Trust “Dr. Google”?

By Heather Bartos, an obstetrician/gynecologist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton.

That new ache in your lower back. That nagging fatigue. A cough that won’t go away. You aren’t sure it’s anything, but it could be something — so you head to the quickest source of information, the Internet.

But how do you know you’re getting the best and most trustworthy advice? Is consulting “Dr. Google” a good idea?

Well, yes and no. A 2012 Pew Research survey revealed that while 1 in 3 Americans have consulted the Internet for medical advice, a 2007 survey found that only 25 percent took steps to make sure the advice came from a reliable source.

That same 2012 study found that more than 75 percent of people looking for healthcare advice began their last search session on a search engine like Google, while 13 percent said they began at a site that specializes in health information, like WebMD. Of those surveyed who searched online, only 41 percent had their diagnosis confirmed by a doctor, and 35 percent said they never went to a doctor to confirm the information they found.

So how do you know you can trust an online medical source? First, let’s start with signs that you shouldn’t trust a source.

  1. It’s run out of a garage. The best sites have legitimate names behind them — think big societies or large academic centers.
  2. It makes outrageous claims like “Treat your cancer in three easy steps!” While we all wish that were true, there are no “facts” in it. The science of medicine is based on factual data. The art of medicine relies on the physician’s ability to put the data together for a diagnosis. It doesn’t mean that websites can just make up facts and present them as evidence. All of the good medical websites will often quote their sources in the article or at the bottom of the page.
  3. It tries to sell you something. I see this a lot. Have Hashimoto’s disease? You may find a website that seems factual and then at the end of the page it tells you only their supplements will treat it. Buyer beware!
  4. Their information is from 1979. Medical knowledge grows by leaps and bounds — even last year’s information may be out of date! Many treatments for heart disease weren’t even thought of 30 years ago. Current up-to-date information is exactly what you need.
  5. Their sources are not real medical professionals. While I support and believe in ancillary health professionals, a chiropractor should not diagnose ovarian cysts and a dietitian should not tell you how to manage your diabetes medications. We should all stick to what we are experts in.
  6. It tells you to ignore advice from a medical professional. That is completely dangerous. If you’re unsure of your doctor’s advice, seek a second opinion. Also, sites that tell you to challenge your doctor’s advice should be cautioned. While doctors appreciate a patient bringing up information that they’ve gathered, nothing deteriorates the relationship faster than telling your physician, “Well, #suzysdiabetespage says otherwise.”
  7. The site scares you. Your mild headache you’ve had for two days is brain cancer! Your sister’s gas pain is a heart attack! Any site that makes that leap without encouraging you to be evaluated by a doctor should be avoided like the plague (which some sites will assure you that you have).
  8. They hinge on the newfangled diseases. A few years back, Hantavirus was in the news (a plague-like virus caused by mouse droppings) and suddenly pseudo-medical sites addressed all symptoms as a Hantavirus scare. In truth, there were only a few cases in the United States. Now, with Zika on the radar, if any website tells you that every mosquito bite causes Zika or every symptom of a bite may cause Zika, run! It’s too rare a disease to cause mass pandemonium.

Now that you know what to avoid, what does a good medical website look like? A good medical website should be non-biased, present facts not opinions and have a medical reputation to back it up. Some of my favorites I send people to are E-medicine.medscape and university-based services, such as the Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic.  And of course, Texas Health Resources has wellness tools, symptom checkers and ways to check for drug interactions (among many other things) on its Health and Wellness page, which makes searching for medical information and finding a local doctor to confer with even easier.

In addition to the aforementioned, Up To Date, which is a wonderful site that presents information for both medical professionals and consumers. If you know what you are suffering from, there are association-linked support sites for those illnesses (such as the American Cancer Society). All of those are usually great sources to get useful, truthful information.

When your car is making a weird noise you don’t go on somebody’s blog and figure out what’s wrong with it.  You might head to AAA or even your manufacturer’s website. Certainly, if there’s an acute emergency such as chest pain or a head injury I wouldn’t take the time to look online — acute emergencies and need to be evaluated immediately in the emergency room.

But if you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic condition such as lupus or cancer, it is wise and prudent to get more information on the Web. But caution: sometimes the web can needlessly frighten you. Many patients will race to their doctor looking for answers because of something they read online. For instance, if you have an ovarian cyst and you search for lower abdominal pain or ovarian cyst, online sources could lead you to believe you have a tumor or cancer. And most of the time, that’s not the case.

So yes, seeking medical information on the Internet is a good idea — provided it’s from a reputable source and you always seek a medical opinion to confirm or dispel your findings.

In need of a primary care physician or rethinking if you really need to see the doctor? Check out our article on why having a primary physician is one of the best things you can do for your health.

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