Wed, Jan 12, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Is online health information hazardous to your health?

In attempting to identify illnesses online, we are misdiagnosing and undermining the role of the family doctor

By Aleks Krotoski  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: mountain people

There’s a joke that we tell in my family to irritate my physician father.

A doctor dies and goes to heaven. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates in his scrubs, he strides up to the front of the line and demands to be let in because he, a doctor, clearly deserves special treatment. After all, he’s been through medical school. He can save lives. He is, in short, awesome. St Peter tells him no and sends him to the back of the line.

Moments later, another dead guy, also wearing surgical scrubs, walks to the front and the gates swing open for him. The first doctor asks why he let the other one in and not him. St Peter responds: “Oh, that’s God. He thinks he’s a doctor.”

It is a terrible generalization, but doctors have historically tended to think that they have all the answers. And when it comes to matters of the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and other cuts of the human corpus, they certainly know more than the average person.

However, a public increasingly informed about medical options and personal well-being is beginning to question the medicine man’s authority, thanks to the trove of health-related content online. Anything you want to know about any symptom is not only available in triplicate (often with conflicting advice), but that information is often accompanied by prognoses, treatments and social support networks. You can now effectively bypass the doctor’s surgery completely by self-diagnosing and self--medicating. The Web is having a profound effect on how we understand and how we do health.

Last week, the healthcare company Bupa and the London School of Economics released the results of an international healthcare survey. More than 12,000 people across 12 different countries were asked about their attitudes towards aging, chronic diseases and health and well-being.

The report, Health Pulse 2010, made headlines around the world, not just because it coincided with people kickstarting the new year by logging on to fitness Web sites or checking their flu symptoms, but also because it fed our concerns about the Web: It condemned online health -information and us for believing in it.

To summarize their findings: More of us than ever are using the Web to find out more about an ailment before or instead of visiting the doctor. More health-related Web sites, tools and social networks are available to support this demand. And, most alarmingly, only a quarter of the people surveyed checked the reliability of health information they found online by looking at the credibility of the source. In other words, a typical medical consultation now follows this trajectory: 1) you discover a growth, 2) do a Google search, 3) believe the first result that confirms your expectations.

One specific mistake that people now make when searching online also strikes medical students around their second year, when they’re starting to get into the nitty-gritty of pathologies. I suffered a version of this so-called Medical Student Syndrome when I was taking my psychopathology courses: Looking at all the symptoms of all the mental disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV, it was clear that not only was I paranoid schizophrenic, but all of my close friends and family most certainly had post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline -personality disorder or Munchausen’s syndrome.

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