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Using the Web as a Health Resource

Prepare for your appointment with Dr. Google

Online health informationEver experience an unfamiliar ache and turn to the Internet for advice? If so, you're not alone. While there's nothing wrong with searching the world's largest information resource for health information, it can often lead to something worse than the ache itself: fear.

A Web search can unearth a plethora of possible causes for that ache, ranging from a bad mattress to a life-threatening disease. That's why we decided to ask Rupel Dedhia, MD, a primary care physician at Rush, about her experiences with patients using the Web as a health resource and her thoughts on using it wisely. 

Q: What role does the Internet play in your interactions with patients?

Dedhia: Most of my patients are pretty Internet savvy and turn to the Web for many of their health questions prior to seeing me. So when they come to their appointments, they typically arrive with plenty of information. Some of it is accurate, some is not.

Having some sort of knowledge base, though, is good because it sparks discussion between doctor and patient. And I often point my patients to websites so they can gather additional information after our appointments.

Q: Is there a downside to having access to so much information via the Web?

Dedhia: It can be problematic when patients diagnose themselves or jump to the worst conclusions based on their research. I spend a fair amount of time assuring patients that their problems aren't as dire as they think. And often, they don't have what they think they have.

What's even more troubling is when they start a treatment regimen, say doing colonic cleanses for a suspected gastrointestinal condition, based on what they read on the Internet and not from what a doctor prescribed following a thorough examination. 

Q: What's wrong with using the Web to get a diagnosis? 

Dedhia: The Web can do a lot of amazing things, but unlike doctors, it can't do physical exams, process in-depth questions about your health and your family's health histories, and order, evaluate and perform follow-up tests. It also can't tell you what you don't have. That's what doctors do, and that's how we develop diagnoses.

Q: What’s the best approach to using the Web for health information?

Dedhia: I think it’s great that we have so much information at our fingertips via the Internet, and I encourage my patients to use the Web. That said, I also encourage them to exercise caution.

If they are experiencing a troubling symptom, such as a rash or series of headaches, I understand their urge to Google. And that's OK; they just need to make an appointment with me as well.

They also need to visit websites with reliable information. I tell my patients to be wary of sites that seem to be selling products.

It's also a good idea to go directly to dedicated health information sites, such as the National Institutes of Health site or Rush’s health information site, rather than relying on a search engine to find the information. Search engines can unearth a host of unreliable sites. Sometimes just the magnitude of search results can be unnerving, so avoid that stressor and go directly to the source. Just make sure it's trustworthy.  

Q: How do you know if content is reliable?

Dedhia: A reputable hospital's site is typically safe as are U.S. government sites and those hosted by national organizations dedicated to specific diseases, such as the American Heart Association and the  American Cancer Society. If the content is written by a doctor or health expert, you're probably on safe ground.

It's also a good idea to check the date to ensure that content is recent or if it has been reviewed recently. 

August 2011