Getting and Staying Healthy Online

June 02, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
Online resources moderated by health professionals can offer useful advice. But the fact remains that self-diagnosis is a misnomer, and can be potentially dangerous. FindingDulcinea offers some hints on how to safely search for useful, reliable health information on the Internet.

The trouble with so many health Web sites is that they try to provide a comprehensive diagnosis based on limited data. Enter the symptoms you’re experiencing into a site’s health search tool and you may get a long list of serious-sounding conditions. The search results might point you in the right direction, confuse you further or even scare you into making a doctor’s appointment.

“Cyberchondria” is the term used for an addiction to researching, uncovering and diagnosing health problems for yourself or for your loved ones. It’s almost impossible to resist the temptation of the Web, because there’s so much information out there. Not always being able to find what you want certainly doesn’t discourage people from returning to it day after day, to research other topics.

But as British journalist Lizzie Enfield cautions in the London Times, “We are all a mere Google away from any number of chronic conditions.” When Enfield herself “logged on to one self-diagnosis website and typed in a few mildly debilitating complaints such as fatigue, thirst and indigestion,” she found among the possible ailments, “diabetes, anemia, pregnancy and ovarian cysts.” She adds that, “Anyone can easily create a health-related website.” The article was published in 2005, but remains relevant today as health Web sites continue to multiply.
But some of the sites that have emerged in the past few years are welcome additions to the club. Revolution Health may be the standout member. Founded by former AOL executive Steve Case, the site is far less chaotic than that the old standard, WebMD; it is visually appealing and has an advisory board of real doctors who blog and otherwise share free health advice. The site offers valuable sections on insurance and nutrition in addition to its diagnosis resources. Like the ever-reliable Mayo Clinic, Revolution Health promotes sound health research, and may even lead to some self-diagnosis success stories.
The health section of JustAnswer features doctors who answer questions submitted by anyone with a medical concern. Answers cost approximately $10 each, are largely objective and are provided by doctors looking to increase their positive feedback score (that part is up to you). It’s free to search the archives for answers that might be helpful to you. But such a site can never beat face-to-face contact with a doctor, even if the appointment leaves you wanting a second opinion.
Wrong Diagnosis is routinely very highly ranked in search engine results, particularly if you’re researching symptoms. The site quickly and efficiently provides a long list of medical conditions associated with one or several symptoms you input. Obviously, diagnosing yourself in this fashion can be scary and possibly hazardous to your health. Fortunately, the site also offers the article, “Self Diagnosis Pitfalls,” which explains the cons of overusing an online health resource. Heed the piece's warning: “you’re not an expert.”
Experts are not exempt from the temptation to diagnose based on little or no knowledge. In an April 2008 New York Times article, the psychiatrist Barbara Schildkrout wrote about the desire to offer medical advice to acquaintances or even strangers whose appearances suggest the presence of an undiagnosed medical condition. A doctor diagnosing a bystander faces the same problem as you do when you’re making an online self-diagnosis: you both lack information. In both cases, an actual consultation with a professional can supply that lack.
With the goal of making online health research easier, the findingDulcinea Guides team tackled health before any other guide topic. The result is our top-level health guide, “Your Health, In Your Hands.” It provides dozens of the best health sites, whether you’re looking to get more information, find a doctor, find health insurance, improve communication with your doctor or get up to date on medicines.

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