Life Health Features

Sunday 21 September 2014

'Doctor doctor, the internet said I have cancer...'

Dr Nina Byrnes

Published 26/08/2014 | 02:30

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There are some impressive tech lies in Irish life.
There are some impressive tech lies in Irish life.

My doctor has advised me against using 'Dr Google' to diagnose myself. I have been advised that it is easy to be misled about symptoms and disease.The thing is, I like to keep informed. How can I find reliable accurate health information on the web?

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A: Medicine has changed phenomenally in the past few decades. In previous years you went to your doctor for medical advice. The local library may have had some information for those who wanted to search further. Today you can access all types of advice and facts from the comfort of your armchair.

The internet can be a wonderful source of health advice and information. There is potentially a site for every symptom. Many websites provide very accurate and up-to-date information but there are other sites that express opinion or make incorrect statements about health and disease. Trying to tell fact from fiction can be difficult.

You can avoid unreliable health information when searching the web by following a few simple rules. Be prepared when you search the internet.

Don't type in very general search terms. Try to be as specific as possible. This will avoid your search resulting in thousands or even millions of hits. Once you have found a site that seems promising ask yourself a number of questions.

You need to find out where the information comes from. Find out who wrote it. Many websites post information from other health organisations. The source should be clearly stated. If the information wasn't written by a doctor or other health professional it should have been reviewed by one and this should also be stated.

Is the information given opinion or fact? Many sub-standard health information websites state opinions as fact. If the information is an opinion it should be that of a qualified medical expert.

Find out how current the information on the site is. Reliable websites should be regularly checked and updated. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Many decent medical websites will state at the bottom of a page when the information was last updated. If this isn't clear the date of publication may be detailed in the copyright statement. Medicine is a constantly evolving discipline and information needs to be current. The information you view should have been updated within the past year.

Review who is responsible for the content of the website. The home page should state who publishes the site. If you cannot find this here the "about us" section should provide this.

Websites that are published by well-known health organisations or government-sponsored websites are likely to be more reliable than those who are published by lesser known organisations or individuals. Websites sponsored by pharmaceutical companies or for profit organisations can be very good but it should be clear where they got their information from and all treatments for a condition should be explored. The address of a website can be helpful. Those ending in .gov are government organisations, .org reflects a not-for-profit organisation and .edu reflects a university or academic institution. Websites that are published by an individual or blogs may give a more human insight into a condition and give you an opportunity to communicate with others with similar symptoms. It is important to remember however that the information on these sites is most likely to be opinion and less likely to be evidence-based or fact. You should double check any information you find.

A health information website should clearly state if the information is intended for public or medical professionals. A site intended for public use should use plain non-medical language that can be easily understood. Some sites intended for professional use may come across as complicated due to the use of terminology and statistics.

The use of the internet as a source of health information is here to stay. A study in the USA in 2013 showed that 60pc of people had accessed the web for health information in the previous year, and 35pc of adults stated they did so to figure out what condition they or a friend may have. The important thing to remember is that the internet cannot and should not replace a doctor. We have a saying in medicine "common things are common"- this means that although a symptom may seem weird or wonderful it is most likely to be common and treatable. When you type a symptom into Google you are quite likely to find that it can be associated with cancer or a serious condition. This can cause undue anxiety.

It's ok to ask 'Dr Google' but remember he doesn't always get it right.

Here are some reliable medical websites: cancer.ie; mayoclinic.org; netdoctor.co.uk; patient.co.uk; hse.ie.

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