“Unreliable information about health online is a real worry. Understandably people feel the ‘fear factor’ when searching the internet about health, as most symptoms can be a possible sign of serious illnesses such as cancer. Relying on dodgy information can easily lead to people taking risks with inappropriate tests and treatments, wasting money and causing unnecessary worry.”— Dr. Annabel Bentley, Medical Director, Bupa Health and Wellbeing
Dr. Google is a hack. We all know that online self-diagnosis is ill-advised and about as reliable as campaign promise from a politician, but most of us will do it anyway. According to Bupa, more than half of the people in the UK who search for health information online are intending to self-diagnose. It goes without saying that the official advice is to go to the doctor, but the least you can do is take some sensible precautions to give yourself the best chance of coming to a reasonable conclusion about your possible health problem.
Choose your sources carefully
The first (and arguably the most important) step towards finding out what’s wrong with you is choosing which information to listen to and which to cast aside as misleading gibberish. There are a disturbing amount of inaccurate web pages out there, and if you use one to find out about your symptoms, chances are you'll come to an erroneous conclusion about your condition – turning a mere headache into a brain tumour through the unselective use of information.
The British Medical Association advises, “Sites like Best Health and NHS Choices are reliable, whereas people should be extremely sceptical about any sites that promise miracle cures or demand payment.” Blindly Googling your symptoms will turn up all manner of sites, but you should zero in on results from authoritative sources like the NHS, Bupa or any university webpages (web address ending “.edu” or “.ac.uk”). If you use another site, check the “About Us” section to see where the information is coming from, and you can also look for the UK’s Information Standard quality mark to see if the page is trustworthy. It’s best to directly visit a reliable site and then do a search for your required information there.
Additionally, make a note of the sites you obtain bits of information from. When you’re searching multiple websites, it’s easy to forget where you found out a certain piece of information. If you make a little list of the information you obtained from different locations, it will help you determine which to believe in case you receive contradictory information.
Rahul K. Khare, MD – an emergency room physician from Chicago – points out that, “Every person is about four websites away from deciding they have cancer and are going to die.” This is the other big problem with online self-diagnosis, and it relates to our ability to evaluate possibilities and come to reasonable conclusions. It’s easy to panic when you see a rare, unusual and fatal condition listed on the results of a symptom checker, but regardless of how much you feel like you’re going to die, chances are you have something mundane and relatively harmless.
A useful technique to avoid coming to this type of conclusion is to write your symptoms down before doing any research. Otherwise, searching for one symptom can lead you to reading about a specific – often potentially fatal – condition and convincing yourself that what you’re going through matches the symptoms. Writing down your symptoms beforehand (even if you’ve had one particular symptom for a while – it may be related to the current problem) helps to guard against this because it removes the potential source of bias.
The next step is to perform a rudimentary differential diagnosis. List the conditions which match the symptoms you’re experiencing (remembering to note the website where you found the information) and start working through the list. The aim is to remove options from your list. You can do this in many ways, but an easy way to start is to look at the other common symptoms of the condition to see if there is an obvious disparity between them and the ones you’re experiencing. Additionally, you can look at who is commonly affected by a condition and see if you fit into the risk group. For example, bowel cancer is much more common in people aged over 65, so even if some of your symptoms match; it’s more likely that you don’t have it if you’re only in your 20s or 30s. Of course, it’s still possible that you do have it, but it’s reasonable to strike it off the list because it’s not likely by definition.
What to do next
If you were able to whittle your list down to one option, it’s time to look at treatment. If you aren’t severely ill, it’s likely you’ll be able to buy some over-the-counter medicine (for things like colds and allergies) which will ease your symptoms until the condition clears up on its own. Of course, if you aren’t able to settle on a single option or the treatment requires a prescription, it’s best to visit your doctor and explain your symptoms to an expert.
If you believe you have a serious condition, the important thing is to not panic. Unless you’re a qualified physician there is a still a strong possibility that you will be wrong, or will have perhaps overlooked a more common condition which can cause the same problems. The best course of action, again, is to make an appointment to see your doctor, or go to an emergency room if there’s a chance it’s something immediately life-threatening.