Sunday 23 October 2016

Asking Dr Google for its non-expert help can be a truly dangerous thing

Arlene Harris

Published 15/10/2016 | 02:30

Dr David Burke warned that looking up symptoms online can cause people unnecessary alarm Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Dr David Burke warned that looking up symptoms online can cause people unnecessary alarm Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire

We have all sought the advice of Dr Google at some point or other to self-diagnose minor ailments. But relying on the internet to determine the state of your health or, worse, to analyse serious symptoms can be a very dangerous thing.

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Dr David Burke, Consultant Cardiologist and Head of Cardiology at the Beacon Hospital, says while there are many useful sites available online for those who want to do a little research, it can cause unnecessary alarm.

"There is a lot of helpful information on the internet and patients can glean useful notes to help them to be prepared when visiting their doctor," he says. "It also helps them to understand what may be wrong and what is involved in their treatment.

"However, it can also present people with the worst-case scenario and in turn cause patients to become terrified about their health as their condition is blown out of proportion."

The cardiac expert advises people to only visit reputable sites and not to trust all the advice given online.

"The internet is a vast place, with so many sites offering information that it can be overwhelming," he says. "I would encourage people, particularly those with a serious condition (such as a heart problem), to only seek advice from official sites, such as the Irish Heart Foundation or official government health sites.

"I would also advise them to stay away from pop-up health adverts and always ask a doctor about worrying symptoms. In short, the internet can be great, but should not be used to diagnose or treat an illness."

ON that note, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland warns against buying medicine online.

"People are advised to exercise care if purchasing medicines online and to look for the EU common logo on the seller's website," says a spokesperson for PSI.

"To verify the seller, the logo links to the national regulatory authority (PSI in Ireland), where the public can check the seller is entered on the internet supply list and therefore authorised to supply non-prescription medicines online.

"Fake medicines are an increasing health risk, which may be harmful or fatal- so it is crucial to get the exact medication needed. However, this information relates only to the sale of non-prescription medicines. It is illegal to sell prescription-only medicines online to people in Ireland."

The RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons Ireland) has recently launched an app to help the public understand how to use the web in relation to health issues.

Entitled 'My Health', the app provides accurate advice on many different conditions.

"The free app provides credible health information on over 1,000 specific diseases and conditions in one easy-to-use app in a clear, focused and organised manner for everyone to access and understand," explains Dr Steve Kerrigan of the RCSI.

He says many people use the internet to self-diagnose but they should research sites carefully.

"Recent research has found that one in 20 Google searches are for health-related information," he says. "Eighty-one per cent of Irish adults use the web to self-diagnose, with 46pc reporting increased stress as a result. In addition, many health-promotion websites are poorly managed, non-focused and don't always cover an extensive range of diseases.

"I would encourage patients to discover what is the source of the information: is the site reputable; did they partner with a reputable organisation and who wrote the information -a clinician, student or lay person who thinks they know it all because they had the condition?

"This information can usually be found on the webpage, but if not, I would be suspicious as most reputable organisations state why they are qualified to give advice. Ultimately, don't trust a website that diagnoses your illness and if you have any concerns, go to your GP for help."

On a positive note, however, Dr Mark Murphy of the Irish Association of General Practitioners says that once a patient has been diagnosed, the internet can be a great tool.

"In the modern world, people are always going to google their symptoms which can either cause unnecessary alarm for the patient or leave them falsely reassured," he says.

"However, once a diagnosis has been made from a GP, the web can be very useful for patients to read up about their condition on sites which have been recommended by their physician."

Irish Independent

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