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5 Things to Remember When Reading Medical Websites

During my transition from public to private health, I have indeed noticed some interesting differences that have forced me to practice medicine a perhaps a tad differently.  One big surprise:  in private health, I have to admit that I have been pretty astounded to see that my patients quite heavily rely on the internet before they even come to see me for their given ailments. 

In public health, some of my patients were not even able to read, let alone surf the internet.  Many were not even able to afford a computer in their home.  My challenges there were not generally to find myself having to defend my practice of evidence-based medicine and to explain my medical reasoning on a step-by-step process, as I am doing now; all thanks to the internet.  The internet has truly made it seem as though it is a daily battle, to wrestle and knock out each erroneous pseudo-factoid out there.  No doubt about it, it has made my job harder in many ways.

But perhaps it’s not necessarily a public vs. private health difference, but more of an advancing-in-technology-with-time issue.  More and more patients seek the internet for health information and advice as time goes by – that is just the reality of medicine today. 

But unfortunately, most of the websites my patients are reading are unreliable, I have come to learn.  That is what scares me, not that they are actually yearning to learn more about their health conditions.  Sometimes, a little bit of knowledge can actually be a scary thing:

“Doc, I have this tingling in my hand for the last four days, and I am convinced it’s Lupus!”

“No way am I getting the flu shot – I saw that cheerleader video on YouTube!”

“I’ve had this back pain for two weeks now, and this websites says I need an MRI.  Can you order me one, Doc?”

“I am so afraid -- I keep gaining weight and I read online that it could be a growing tumor!”

So I have started to adapt how I practice now, and am actually enjoying and embracing this new challenge that advanced technology has thrown at me.  I love the fact that my patients want to educate themselves on their health conditions.  The more knowledge they have, the better they will take care of themselves I have learned (in general).  But I do encourage my patients to refer to some more reliable sources of health information online.  Here’s the list I give to my patients:

5 Tips to Keep in Mind When Reading Medical Websites

And when they are reading, I ask them to PLEASE keep these few tips in mind:

1.  In general, please be wary of any website with the ending “.com”, and opt for those websites with “.gov” or “.org”. 

2.  If you are reading info online that is starting to become frightening to you, that is your signal to turn the computer OFF and make an appointment to see your doctor instead.  Please do not continue to terrorize yourself, because most of the time, what you are reading is not what is really going on.  Nothing good can come from that.

3.  Always ask yourself, “Who is writing this article?”  Is it written by a physician?  Most of the time, it’s not.  Many online health articles are written by journalists with “special focus” on medical information – and what does that mean, ask yourself.  Whatever that means, it’s NOT typically sufficient enough to be giving patients medical advice.  They are primarily writers, designed to catch headlines and grab your attention, not medically trained professionals who have enough knowledge to give accurate advice.  The scarier and more controversial their writings, the more money they make.

4.  Find out who sponsors the article, and if the writer is affiliated with any entity that wants to sell you a product.  Does the author work for a drug company?  What are they trying to sell you? Be wary…very wary.  Where is this article written?  I mean, is Vogue magazine a reliable source of medical information?

5.  Anything you read is one dimensional.  The computer cannot solve complex medical problems that require a background of experience and human reasoning.  The computer cannot perform a physical exam, or feel your level of pain, anxiety, or whatever it may be with one look.  Medicine is complex, that’s why it takes a minimum of eleven years of school to become a doctor.  Otherwise, doctors would be out of a career. Trust your doctor.

"Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important." 

-- Bill Gates


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