The internet can be a problematic place to go when you feel unwell.
Still, diagnosing symptoms online is temptingly easy, so it’s not surprising that roughly two-thirds of Americans do it. You can just type, tap or click your way to a diagnosis without leaving your home (or your bed, for that matter). Of course, there’s a catch.
Here’s how to leverage the wonderful web to enhance — not endanger — your health.
The Health Hazards of Online Info
You could probably guess that online health info isn’t as good as seeing a medical professional. But it can’t hurt to do some research ahead of time, right?
Actually, it can. According to the Journal of Medical Internet Research, people who get poor health information online can harm their own health in three ways:
- Emotional pain. You can cause yourself unnecessary stress if you think you have something you really don’t or misjudge its severity.
- Damage to relationships. Pursuing bad health information when it runs against your doctor’s advice can damage the relationship you have with your doctor.
- Health care risks. Reading certain health care recommendations online might make you think twice about seeing a doctor at all, even if you really need to.
When it comes to your health, a mistake now could mean an expensive fix down the line. On top of the detriment to your health, all of those risks can put a dent in your finances due to the extra care you might need to address whatever havoc the bad info wreaked.
How to Use Dr. Google Responsibly
While online info should never take the place of seeing an actual health care provider, there might be times when you want to jump online for a quick answer or additional details — and that’s OK. Learning how to understand medical information boosts your health literacy and helps you ask more informed questions about your health.
You just have to know where to look. To vet a site’s credibility, the National Institutes of Health advises that internet-savvy fact-seekers:
- Check the website’s source. Sites that end in .gov are properties of the U.S. government, and those that end in .edu indicate an educational institution. Both are generally established, trustworthy options. Those that end in .org sometimes — but not always — come from a nonprofit organization, which may also be a trustworthy source.
- Look for a recent date. Many reputable sites date their information so that you can see when it was published, medically reviewed or updated. Ensure that you’re reading updated material, since best practices and guidelines can change with time.
- Beware of miracle fixes. Be skeptical of health information that makes bold claims with little evidence to back it up. For this same reason, information contributed by patients on forums or message boards may be less reliable.
Keep in mind that these aren’t necessarily hard-and-fast rules, and there are always exceptions. Ultimately, it’s up to you to judge whether or not you should trust health information you see online. For more detailed advice on ensuring a site’s credibility, check out tools like this health website checklist and this internet health info tutorial, both from the National Library of Medicine.
Online Resources You Can Trust
Although none of them is as good as a talk with your doctor, the following types of resources tend to yield more research-based, fact-checked information.
- Government sites, such as those for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, end in .gov and are great sources of easy-to-understand information.
- Medical journals, such as those searchable on the federal site PubMed, provide peer-reviewed research. However, they can also use technical jargon that’s sometimes hard to follow.
- Voluntary organizations like the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society provide disease-specific info in easy-to-read terms, but remember that not all sites that end in .org are trustworthy.
- Professional associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association often publish helpful articles. Just check first that it’s up to date and not too technical.
- Hospital websites of well-known organizations like the Mayo Clinic or the Cleveland Clinic keep an updated library of medical content for all readers, not just the patients who go there.
- Insurance websites often provide up-to-date medical data, but always verify that the site references reputable sources. It’s also a good idea to log into your insurance carrier’s online portal for customized health info.
Bear in mind that taking to the web and talking to a doctor aren’t mutually exclusive. If you’re set on getting to the bottom of your health question while still in pajamas, you can still virtually connect with a real-life doctor through telemedicine.
Above All, Advocate for Yourself
Just because you read something online doesn’t mean it’s true — but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, either. If you come across information online that prompts questions or concerns, bring it up to your doctor.
After all, the two of you operate as a team to help keep your body and mind in tiptop shape, and it doesn’t work if someone sits out. So, learn what you can from reputable sources, but avoid self-diagnosing symptoms online. That’s a job best left to the professionals.