An excerpt from Taking Care of You: The Empowered Woman’s Guide to Better Health.
How many times have you found yourself with an unusual symptom or ailment and then quickly opened your phone to Google what it means? A lot of us do it! Whether we are searching for information for ourselves, or trying to help a family member or friend, many women search for health information online.
While the act of searching for health information online is not harmful in and of itself — it’s good to be concerned about your health! — it is important to recognize that searching for health information online is only a starting point. Online searches are not the final answer, and certainly not a diagnosis.
Evaluating the reliability of information online
When searching for medical advice online you will likely find yourself sifting through an overwhelming amount of information, since there are websites covering almost every single health topic. While some of your search results may provide information from a reputable medical institution, your results can also produce social media posts, blogs, open forums, news articles, advertisements, and so on. Search engines such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing do not verify the information they present.
To determine the reliability and accuracy of health information, focus on three main things:
Who is providing the information?
Reliable websites will tell you where their health information came from; in fact, some websites will have teams of qualified individuals vetting the information found on their sites. Other sites may not have this level of vetting but will list the author’s name and credentials at the top or bottom of the article or post.
When browsing a health site, make sure that the information was written or reviewed by a qualified medical professional and that their credentials align with the expertise they are providing. If an author isn’t listed, you can determine whether the information you have found is credible and trustworthy by contacting the site owners. Reliable websites will have a separate “About Us” or “Contact Us” page or will have their contact information listed at the bottom of the page.
When was the information provided? How recent is it?
Science is constantly changing. Look for the most current information. You can often find out when a website was edited or reviewed by looking for a date at the bottom of the page. A good rule of thumb is that the information should be no older than three years (although with COVID-19 we have learned that even three months can bring about significant discovery and change!)
What is the goal of the information? Why is it being provided?
Even when websites provide accurate and current information, the site may not be providing the most relevant information for you. Thus, it is vital to know why the site was created, which can help you better assess the content provided.
Sometimes the primary purpose of the website is to inform or explain, but sometimes it is to advertise a product or a service. However, just because a website is trying to advertise a service or product does not mean that it may not be helpful or reliable. Many websites offer a range of services from information and education to advertisement.
One example is psychologytoday.com, which provides articles related to mental health but also advertises for many mental health professionals who are accepting new patients. This brings us to why you should see a clinician when you have a health concern.
Seeking a clinician after finding information online
Finding information online helps us become more informed. But we can’t rely on any single website to provide us with a diagnosis or treatment plan. It is always a good idea to seek care from a medical professional when you have a health concern.
One study found that out of the 72 percent of Americans who reported looking up health information, nearly 50 percent decided that their symptoms didn’t need the attention of a clinician. This is an alarming statistic because relying solely on search engines for decision-making can keep you from accessing and receiving proper care when you need it.
Even if you use a symptom-checker tool from a trustworthy source, such as the CDC, research shows that you will receive a correct diagnosis only 34 percent of the time, and that is only in relation to simple health concerns. Complex cases need a much more conscientious approach, which requires the support of a clinician.
Sharing the information you found online with a clinician
It is beneficial for you to share your symptoms and what you found online with your clinician. Share what you searched for, why you searched for it, what you found and where you found it.
If you found some potentially frightening results online, your clinician may acknowledge your concerns but may start by asking you a list of questions about your background and well-being, instead of focusing on your search results. Your clinician is not being rude or dismissive of your concerns but seeking additional information in order to make an accurate diagnosis. Be open and honest with your clinician about any challenges you may be experiencing, as it will help them help you.
Hopefully the end process of your online search leads you to a clinician who can provide you with the right diagnosis and treatment. However, if you don’t feel listened to, or something in your gut tells you that you didn’t arrive at the right diagnosis and treatment, your journey does not need to end there. Keep in mind that not all clinicians offer the same medical advice.
Pearls of wisdom
Women rely on the internet more heavily than men do to understand health concerns, engage with others about health, and use technology to support health goals for themselves and their families. This is not surprising considering that women have more health needs, are more often caregivers, and make 80 percent of health care decisions for their families. Searching for health information online can make women more informed health care consumers and better self-advocates, if they use credible health information to ask questions.
However, women should not rely on the internet to self-diagnose and then delay or skip clinical care. No website is a substitute for a qualified clinician. Remember, when your health concerns are urgent, you should immediately seek professional medical care, not Google!
Mary O’Connor is an orthopedic surgeon and Kanwal L. Haq is a medical anthropologist. They are authors of Taking Care of You: The Empowered Woman’s Guide to Better Health.
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