What are reliable sources online for medical advice?

Where to Get Health Information Online

Fingers typing on a keyboard.

A woman in her 40s had colon cancer, which spread to her liver. She underwent aggressive surgery to remove the cancer and part of her liver. Things went well. Then she had a routine blood test, which was slightly elevated--typical following surgery. The woman, with medical record in hand, turned to the Internet and searched the relevance of her high blood test result. She found something about bone cancer, and was convinced the cancer was now in her bones. She spent an agonizing weekend before she could speak with her doctor on Monday, who assured her the blood test result was of minor significance, and she did not have bone cancer.

Welcome to Dr. Internet.

“This is an example of what can happen when patients get online and erroneously interpret tests,” says Edward Creagan MD, professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester and author of How Not to Be My Patient: A Physician's Secrets for Staying Healthy and Surviving Any Diagnosis. The woman above was his patient.

The Internet can be a dangerous place when it comes to your health. Sure, there’s great information out there but if you don’t go to the right place, misinterpret medical jargon, or believe erroneous information, you not only end up confused but could actually jeopardize your health.

“From the time a patient has the first inkling of pain or something not right, they have dozens of interactions with digital media: they do searches, they go to social media, they use mobile devices, tablets, and they’re doing all this stuff before they ever even walk into a doctor’s office,” says Bill Balderaz, president of Fathom Healthcare, an agency who works with thousands of hospitals, clinics and urgent cares to help them communicate effectively with their patients in the age of the Internet.

“Even sitting in the waiting room they’re looking for last minute questions they should ask the doctor,” he says.

A whopping 75 percent of Americans have conducted a search related to their personal health in the last year, according to Balderaz. “Worse, a survey found half of all Americans believe some sort of medical conspiracy theory: Vaccines cause autism, cell phones cause brain cancer or that cancer has been cured and big pharma is hiding it because they can make money.”


Relying on Social Media

There’s tremendous personal merit in the social community, but when it comes to healthcare, turning to Facebook or Twitter may be one of the worst things you can do.

“One of the most disturbing facts is a lot of patients decide whether to even fill their prescriptions based on stuff they see online,” says Balderaz. They get a treatment plan and a prescription and go online and read that some blogger with no medical qualifications talks about the drug’s side effects. The patient takes this as gospel and doesn’t follow their treatment plan. But all medications effect people differently.

Creagan says the problem with using social media is that no two patients are alike. “What happens is that a patient gets online and gets on a chat site or visits a blog and sees Mrs. Jones in Toledo has the same condition I have and her treatment is different. Why is that?” The reason is that there are profound subtleties between patients, which would suggest one line of treatment as opposed to another.

“Without question the typical individual does not have the medical literacy to appropriately interpret some of these medical interventions,” says Creagan.

Even more troubling is that most office visits are 15-20 minutes and that time is not well spent arguing about the merits of some clinical trial you saw online, which may not be appropriate, or some blogger’s opinion of a drug.

Where Can you Go Online?

A study found that nine out of 10 entries analyzed on the crowd-sourced encyclopedia about the costliest medical conditions contradicted scientists 90 percent of the time.

Where you can go is to big name, established organization’s sites. www.mayoclinic.com, www.americanheartassociation.org, www.cancer.org, www.cleavelandclinic.org. Medical educational sites such as www.webmd.com and www.everydayhealth.com are also sound.

The other thing consumers can do is look for is a "certification" of the website itself. Two of the leading certifications of health information websites are: Health OnThe Net (www.HON.ch), and, URAC (www.URAC.org)

Finally, hospitals, doctor’s offices and health insurers have also set up educational resources on their sites. Check these sites for reliable information.

And always question the source. “It’s great to want to connect with people who have the same condition, people who have arthritis or diabetes and talk about lifestyle and dealing with a chronic illness, but when you are making medical decisions, trust in your hospital’s website, trust in your doctors blog, trust in people who have credentials,” says Balderaz.

Most importantly, skip the symptom checker. Self-diagnosing is more harmful than helpful. The risk is how we use even the credible sites. Get the diagnosis from your doctor, then go on the Internet only to learn more.

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