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January 12, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Health and the Internet

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Many of my patients navigate the internet for information regarding healthcare matters - and I encourage it. Like I said in my previous blog, it is wise for patients to educate and think for themselves. Unfortunately however, the same internet searching which can be an empowering thing, can leave others scared or more confused than when they started.

This blog will offer some tips for navigating the internet world of health.

Just 20 years ago, your doctor was the most available definitive resource for consultation regarding health issues. Dr.  Benjamin Spock's Baby and Childcare Guide and Encyclopedia Britannica, which were on many shelves, only contained so much in the vast array of health issues. Furthermore, researching health topics to gain knowledge or self-diagnose outside a doctor's consultation was even considered taboo. 

Enter the internet.

Calling the internet an information super highway doesn't even begin to do it justice! The amount of information that is available to us today - even on our smartphones which go wherever we do is mind-boggling.

Want to find our the price of tea in China?

Wonder if bees actually die after a sting?

You can find out in a matter of seconds!

And when it comes to answering the questions about our health - why we have this or what's wrong with that - we have the answers - and we have lots of them.

Unfortunately, these answers coming from varying sources, with varying levels of expertise and integrity can be misleading, overwhelming, contradictory or in some cases, completely wrong.

The internet has become a jungle- an overgrown, difficult-to-navigate, predatory, dangerous jungle. One must "weed out" the bad in order to find the good. 

The Worst Case Scenario

In this era of "cover yourself so you don't get sued," anyone putting anything on the net is going to feel obligated to direct a reader toward the most serious possibility just to make sure they don't miss anything.  Any rash could be cancer. A cough could be cancer. Bowel irregularity could be cancer. And yes, it could be, but you get the picture. There is usually a less serious cause to blame.

Extremist Opinions in Health

Public forums or chatrooms regarding health problems can be great but there is a downside here as well. I tell my patients to think of the Bell Curve - most opinions will fall within a reasonable range but there will be some outliers. In research it is often prudent to throw out outliers as not to skew the data.

In the same way, I advise patients to be wary of vocal, "worst case scenario" cases. Focus on sites that offer sound advise and in turn offer you the ability to contribute.  After all, it is good to receive advise from someone who has been through a similar experience and can say with honesty, "I know how you feel."  Know, though, that everyone has a different experience.  Our bodies are unique and what works for one will not work for all.

Too Good to Be True

Lastly, buyer beware. 

Be cautious when researching a problem and being told things that seem too good to be true. Seek out consumer feedback. Find sources that explore different options for solutions to health problems in addition to educating on the topic. Most often, there are many solutions and approaches to health problems. Use sites that are not exclusive. Find the sites that focus on helping you, not selling you.  

The internet has given us an ocean of information to surf and an informed person is an empowered person. I encourage you to seek out information regarding your health to grow and discover. However. approach this wealth of information rationally, weeding out the sensational. Once informed, partner with your doctor to explore the issue further or clarify your findings. 

This Blog Dedicated to Jessica Rees

This blog is dedicated to Jessica Rees, a 12 year old who took to the internet in order to raise awareness about pediatric brain cancer after being diagosed herself. 

She died this week after a 10 month battle,  but not without informing and touching countless people  around the world with her heartfelt blogs.  Her spirit and mission are greatly admired.

Photo Credit: Johan V.

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