Your throat hurts.
But you don’t have the cold or the flu.
It’s been 5 days but you don’t think it’s anything serious. Going to the doctor is a hassle.
Maybe you’ll look up your symptoms on the internet. Dr. Google sounds like a good idea.
Next thing you know, Google has some answers for you, complete with pictures.
First up, you have strep throat or maybe it’s laryngitis, or maybe it’s throat cancer?
Is Google right or wrong?
Searching the internet to find out what’s wrong with you seems common with those symptoms.
“Lots of people do it. Research study has shown that at least 60 to 80 percent of the people who search on the internet at any given time for health information, if we’re specifically thinking about a diagnosis, at least 33 to 35 percent of people will search for a specific diagnosis on the internet.”
Doctor Rhonda Low is a Family Physician with the Copeman Healthcare Centre in Vancouver.
“A study was done last summer that looked at how accurate plugging symptoms into symptoms checkers will come out with the correct diagnosis at any given time, and right now besides Dr. Google, we do have many websites that are actually specific symptom checkers. Harvard Medical School has a symptom checker the U.K. National Health Service for example has a symptom checker. “
And just exactly how accurate is a diagnosis?
Dr. Low has the numbers.
“A website doesn’t have the ability to think of you as a person, the individual that you are. It doesn’t have the benefit of your health history, it doesn’t have the benefit of your family history. The question is, how accurate are they? When you actually went to a symptom checker, what they found was a correct diagnosis was usually included in a list of top three diagnosis about 50 percent of the time. But if you think about it, that’s a correct diagnosis about 50 percent of the time within the top three, potential, that would have come up. It’s not exactly that accurate. “
With a 50% chance of the internet properly diagnosing you, Dr. Low says the real danger is pin-pointing exactly what you may or may not have.
“The accuracy with respect to a diagnosis, so that’s where I would say, “Caution please”. Because the data has shown with the latest research that really the accuracy is not there. Maybe a true diagnosis will be there in the top three that you get, 50 percent of the time. But you still don’t know. So accuracy is a problem.”
Then there are cyberchondriacs
“Yup I have that for sure! I know I do. My grandfather had it and his grandfather had it, which means it skips a generation and now I have it. Why didn’t I pay attention the symptoms earlier?”
If you haven’t heard the term, a cyberchondriac is a person who compulsively searches the internet for information about particular real or imagined symptoms of illness. It turns out the glut of information out there can fuel worries.
“The problem is that there’s a lot of false information on the internet as well and it can get propagated very easily. And what happens is that because false information tends to link to other sites that can give you further false information. And before you know it, what you thought was just a simple headache could be a brain tumor. And your head is filled with all these thoughts, because you’ve been led down farther along. And so that’s the inherent danger of if you’re anxious sort or you’re really delving in more and you’re going down the wrong track. Because you’ve been linked to all sorts of sites, you could actually develop a little bit of anxiety or cyberchondria from the wrong information from something you don’t even have.”
But on the topic of mental health, it’s not a bad idea to turn to websites
“We can sometimes be too embarrassed to ask our friends, our family or even go seek professional have. There are also very good mental health websites, such as Mindcheck for young people, we have AnxietyBC.ca. The reason why these website are great is that you can just go and just quietly in the comfort of your own home check these things out to see if your thoughts are worrisome or not. Bonafide websites really help you check in to see if your thoughts are going along the right way, if they’re normal or if it’s something that’s concerning enough that you should seek some help.”
List of websites that are credible
“There are many good ones out there, such as: TheMayoClinic, Harvard Medical Sites, Johns Hopkins (medical health), The Centre for Disease Control, the National Institutes for Health. Medical organizations, national medical organizations, national organizations that govern professionals. They have good sites as well that you can consider bonafide.”
So what’s the verdict? Real doctor vs the internet
“At the end of the day, nothing will replace a professional opinion. Because what a professional opinion should constitute is hearing the story, the signs and the symptoms. But also doing the physical exam and also taking into account the person that you are with your own health history and your own family health history and also your social history — what’s going on in your life. No computer or the internet can synthesize all that for you to help give you a personalized diagnosis.”
There you have it. Nothing will ever take the place of seeing a physician in person. And be careful to not let the internet make matters mentally worse for yourself.