The Internet Isn’t Your GP – Beware Online Medical Advice

It’s so easy to notice a symptom and jump online to see what you can find. Does anyone else have this leg pain? How can I know if this mole is cancerous or just weird looking?

But the danger is that most of the articles you will find aren’t written by medical professionals and can create unnecesary panic or pass on unreliable advice. At the end of the day, you need advice from someone who knows you, understands your body and history, and wants to give you the best, most personalized advice possible.

Below, the highly respected physician and medical researcher Beth Levine explains just a bit of why online symptom checks can do more harm than good.

The Danger Of Online Symptom Checkers

The study, which took place at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts, found that the various websites that offer diagnoses for your symptoms are wrong at least as often as they are right—not a great ratio considering that it’s your health that hangs in the balance.

The results were at best 50-50. The online symptom checkers averaged a correct diagnosis in the top three ailments listed in just 51 percent of the cases. So not only are they wrong approximately half of the time, but even when they are right you have to decide which of the three options seems the best fit since they frequently don’t agree with each other.

Some of the symptom checkers are also designed to recommend whether the user should seek medical attention for their particular illness. This might be a helpful feature–if it was actually accurate. Sadly, however, this feature, when offered, is not much better than the diagnostic results.

The researchers suggest that fear may be a factor motivating many of the users of symptom checkers. For those people, seeing the lists of some potentially serious conditions associated with their symptoms can fuel their imaginations, especially in those who tend toward hypochondria. In fact, there is even a medical term for this phenomenon: cyberchrondria.2

All of this is not to say that online symptom checkers are totally useless. It’s just important not to assign too much value to their results.

– via

It’s definitely true that there is some valuable health information online, but making sure that you read advice from reliable professionals is an important step in keeping yourself safe.

Even more dangerous than general Google searching your symptoms is falling into the health forum rabbit hole. Some people who participate in forums will have genuine and valuable things to say, but often these rooms are full of fear and paranoia, or home remedies that can prove to be unwise at best and legitimately dangerous at worst.

As with the rest of your online browsing, take caution when reading about health issues online and always take anecdotal evidence with a grain of salt.

Flailing in forums

If there’s one thing people like to do online, it’s talk about their problems — especially mundane things like coughs and headaches and their babies’ various and sundry discharges. And, it seems, we’re pretty interested in reading about the health issues of others, too.

According to that Pew study, 23% of social-network users have followed a friend’s health experiences online, and 34% of Internet users have read about someone else’s medical issues on newsgroups, websites or blogs.

That’s all well and good; sharing experiences with others is enriching! Unless the people you’re sharing with are idiots.

Case in point: There’s a Yahoo Answers thread in which folks are discussing whether you can make a pregnancy test out of bleach and Pine-Sol. (Spoiler alert: You can’t.)

“You can easily fall into that rabbit hole and find some forum that really isn’t relevant but maybe sounds kind of close,” warned Craig Monsen, co-founder of symptom-checker app SymCat and fourth-year medical student at Johns Hopkins University.

On the other hand, “sometimes you’ll stumble on exactly the right forum where someone has your same exact problem, and their solution does help.”

The trick is to be wary about the issues being discussed in forums and how germane they are to you. And, you know, if people start talking about homemade remedies fashioned from bleach, maybe click off and see a doc.

– via CNN

Have you ever gotten any scary online medical advice? Or gotten an Internet diagnosis that turned out to be completely off base?