"Always laugh when you can; it is cheap medicine."
Lord Byron famously quipped, "Always laugh when you can; it is cheap medicine." For many of us, enjoying a good belly laugh sounds much more appealing than a trip to the doctor. Millions of us would rather Google our symptoms instead of reaching for the phone to make an appointment.
Health information on the Internet is obviously a good thing. It can even be a lifesaver. For someone who has been diagnosed with a condition, the Internet offers a spectrum of support, from factual info to online support via forums. You can even get free professional advice.
But, along with the benefits, there are many pitfalls to using the Internet to guide our health decisions. Health websites can give us the reassurance that that chest pain is certainly just indigestion. They can also cause panic or lead us into ill-advised choices. Here are some things to bear in mind when using Internet health resources, along with some scenarios when a website is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting with a health professional.
. Either make sure you use a health website that is shiningly reputable or double, triple and quadruple-check your information. You are probably not so gullible as to believe that spider web extract cures cancer but Vitamin X for arthritis may seem more persuasive. Never go on the advice of a website that is pushing the product. They may be right and many commercial sites do give quality information. Just do not take that for granted. National charity websites are often the best first port of call, since they have less of an axed to grind and provide information in a user-friendly style. Many have help lines or quality moderated question forums.
. Remember that medical professionals do not always agree amongst themselves. In addition, positions and treatments are revised all the time. The best health websites will be regularly updated. They will be upfront about any uncertainties about diagnosis and the pros and cons of treatments. They will stress that the information provided can never, ever take the place of a professional examination.
. Understand your symptoms. Symptoms X and Y may well be a sign of some horrific disease. That doesn't mean you have it. It's easy to read about a condition and think that you tick the boxes, when in fact you would have to have the symptoms much more severely to qualify. Falling into this trap applies especially when getting knowledge from websites designed for medical professionals. These assume a certain depth of knowledge on the part of the reader. The difference between the symptoms of a nasty cold and double pneumonia is, crucially, a matter of degree. It's easy to wrongly assess your symptoms and over-react.
. It's also easy to miss symptoms. You may be aware of A, B and C. A doctor or nurse may notice key signs that it would take you a year of reading to come across and might still not recognize in yourself.
. Beware of 'medical students syndrome'. It is well documented that student medics are prone to imagining they have the disease they are studying. They do. not Since many symptoms overlap with everyday aches and pains it's easy to imagine you have what you are reading about.
. If you are sure you have condition X or Y, get a professional opinion. It could set your mind at rest and in some instances it could save your life. There are a variety of situations in which messing about with self-diagnosis can waste critical time.
. If you think you have any of the symptoms of a heart attack (chest pain, arm/neck/jaw pain, breathlessness, blue lips, clamminess) do not bother looking up 'heartburn'.
. The same applies to symptoms of stroke (facial weakness, problems with arm movement, speech impairment). If you wait it may be too late for potentially lifesaving drugs to be administered.
. Never waste time on Internet diagnosis if you have a head injury and/or lose consciousness. Rather be safe than sorry.
. Never let Internet advice delay you taking your kids to the doctor. Of course, you would not anyway...
The Big Plus of Internet Health Resources
If you use health websites intelligently you can do yourself a lot of favors. Health education and public awareness are key factor in preventing a spectrum of diseases and conditions. A degree of self-awareness and commitment to self-care is something that we all need to stay healthy. Health websites help us to do that.
Using health websites could help you pick up on something that urgently needs attention (or you might realize that you are panicking needlessly). Sadly, since not all doctors are on the ball all the time, they might empower you to insist on the attention that you need when your overworked GP tries to fob you off with antibiotics. ('It's just a virus...') If you have an embarrassing condition it may be comforting to discover how many others have it too and that there are solutions available.
The smart rule when it comes to self-diagnosis and treatment is: do. not Even doctors do not trust themselves to diagnose themselves. So why would you?