By MH Staff - Posted on 12th February 2014
It’s time to stop scaring yourself sick. If the Web is a wilderness of health information, consider this your compass…
Your laptop is missing more than a lab coat. “The Internet lacks the diagnostic reasoning that goes on in a doctor’s head,” says Dr Eric Horvitz, a scientist at Microsoft Research. A search engine can’t prioritise pages that will calm you down over those that will freak you out; in fact, panic-inducing articles often rank higher in Web searches. “There’s more written about rare, scary things – such as headache as a sign of brain tumour – than common, boring things, like headache from caffeine with-drawal,” says Horvitz. So... Say goodbye to Google Shift your browsing to MedlinePlus, a site sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. “Search engines with credible content curated by experts provide coverage that’s more balanced than that of general search engines,” says Horvitz. For example, type “chest pain” in MedlinePlus, and “heart attack” will be among the top results, but so will “heartburn” and “sore muscles.” That matters, because the first information you encounter may strongly influence your self-diagnosis, says Dr irginia Kwan, a psychologist at Arizona State University. “It’s tough to overcome your first impression. You may use whatever you read from that point on to support what you think you have.” Rack your brain If you’re searching by symptom, don’t just type in your current complaint. “Pay attention to pre-existing problems too,” says Greene. “If you know you have a family history of an illness or if you’ve always had, say, a slightly elevated heart rate, include that in your search.” In this sense, the Internet is like an internist: the more information you can provide, the greater your odds of an accurate diagnosis. Step away from the keyboard Ask yourself: do I want answers or just reassurance? “People often search the Internet to cope with fear,” says Greene. This may lead you to draw serious conclusions based on general symptoms. Gain perspective by sharing your fears with a significant other or friend. In a new Hong Kong study, people were able to assess others’ risk of serious conditions more accurately than their own. Still obsessing over imagined ills? Visit your doctor. “We see great disruption in some people’s lives,” says Horvitz. “It may be better to see a doctor early on than to continue engaging the Web with anxiety.”
There are certain things you expect a doctor to write for you: prescriptions, a treatment plan, a note for your boss. But a blog? No way, says Greene. “Blogs aren’t for reading about competing treatments, new drug trials, or even physician perceptions.” What they are for is support for the emotional aspects of your diagnosis. “Does your doctor really understand what it’s like to have your condition?” asks Dr Edward Miller, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of Digital Medicine. “Blogs provide access to other people who are experiencing what you’re experiencing.” Your three-step Rx: Follow a trailblazer The ideal blog is one written by a patient who’s at least one step ahead of you in treatment. “This can give you a sense of what to expect next,” says Miller. As Greene puts it, “These are the people who can answer questions like, ‘How is this going to affect my relationship with my wife? Will I still be able to play soccer with my kids?’ ” To find a relevant blog, search for your condition at google.com/blogsearch. Leave the lurking to others Once you start following a blog, don’t hesitate to engage. “Blogs give you the ability to share your experiences with others,” says Miller. “That’s cathartic and also very empowering.” Research shows journaling can encourage people to take control of their own care, and interacting online may offer a similar benefit, say Tufts University researchers. Check your expectations No matter how connected you eventually feel, remember that the blogger is neither your doctor nor your double; another person’s experience will never be a perfect parallel to your own. Even if you share a condition with a blogger, certain details – other complicating health problems, for example – may make his or her treatment different from yours, warns Miller. “The only way to know for sure is to consult a medical professional. Blogs should be a complement to and not a substitute for your doctor.”
You search for restaurant reviews and trust accomodation sites not to advertise dodgy hotels, but can what people tell you really help you pick which doctor to say “aah” for? Not every review from a patient will be positive. You need to pick qualities that you feel is important in a doctor. What’s essential for one patient, might not be important for another. Factors like bedside manner and office efficiency are qualities that have little to do with a doctor’s actual medical knowledge, but are important to some patients. Here’s how to pick the right doc for you... Play the numbers It doesn’t matter what people say as much as the number of comments made about a doctor. The total number of comments might correlate with the volume of procedures a surgeon had performed – an indicator of quality . So ask around about a doc you’ve made an appointment with (preferably someone who is a medical professional). The more people who know of a doctor, probably means that he or she is more experienced. Look for a trail of blood People could claim that he’s the sweetest surgeon in the world, but his colleagues might call him Hacksaw Harry in private. Of course, most doctors and nurses won’t bad-mouth other professionals, so you will need to do some snooping on your own. Ask your doc is he’s SAMA registered, for example. The organisation keeps medical professionals up-to-date on the latest research. (If your doc is a member, it’s an indication that he or she is aware of any recent medical developments, for example. )
With one notable exception – this magazine’s website, natch – online news coverage of medical findings can range from spotty to spectacularly bad. The biggest problem? Oversimplification. “Really big studies often have a very narrow focus, so it’s difficult to generalise from them,” says Lindsay Thompson, an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Florida. “People who translate the studies into news need to under- stand the nuances.” Research the research Before you run with that too-good-to-be-true news – like “Beetroot Juice Can Prevent Prostate Cancer!” – dig a little deeper, says Greene. Did the researchers account for factors that may influence results, such as race, age and economic status? And how big was the study? Two hundred people is considered large for behavioural or psychological studies but very small for drug studies. (The bigger the study, especially if participants came from different regions, the more broadly applicable the findings.) Finally, consider profit motive. Are the researchers affiliated with a group that may have a conflict of interest, like the National Beetroot Council? To find this info, look for a more detailed summary of the study on sciencedaily.com or medicalnewstoday.com. Or call your doctor, who can help you interpret the findings.