A little medical knowledge can be a dangerous thing, which makes the Web a virtual minefield.
AJAY HAD BEEN FEELING UNUSUALLY THIRSTY FOR A FEW days. It was probably nothing, but he decided to see his M.D. anyway. And why not? There’s no wiat and no co-pay with Dr Google. Within seconds. Arvind had a diagnosis: diabetes. Or, wiat, hyperthyroidism. Or kidney failure?! Now he really needed a drink… There’s no Ajay. but there are many guys who, like Ajay suffer from cyberchondria – anxiety about everyday symptoms that escalates after browsing the Web. “Commonly searched sites, on the internet do not provide authentic information always,” says Dr Vaibhav Gupta, consultant, internal medicine. Rockland Hospital, New Delhi. “It becomes difficult for the person to associate symptoms with the overall condition of the body and this leads to further confusion and sometimes panic, “It’s time to stop scaring yourself sick. If the Web is a wilderness of health information, consider this story your compass.
SEARCHING FOR HEALTH INFO
Your laptop is missing more than a lab coat. “The Internet lacks the diagnostic reasoning that goes on in a doctor’s head,” says Dr Gupta. A search engine can’t prioritise pages that will calm you down over those that will freak you out; in fact, panic-induction articles often rank higher in Web searches. “A patient’s capability to deal with the information overload, make sense out of it and understand what piece of information is appropriate for them is questionable. “Many times the internet comes up with alarming results, some of which apply only in the rarest cases,” says Dr Bhavna Barmi, senior psychologist at Delhi’s Fortis Escorts Heart Institute.
Rack Your Brain
But the Internet today is probably the fastest, cheapest and most convenient means of information. It would be a loss if this repository is not effectively utilised. But do not accept anything, says Dr Barmi. “Whatever information is obtained from the Internet should be verified by a medical practitioner. It only gives you a starting point and educates you about the various possibilities. You can go on to different search engines or doctors’ websites to get familiarised with the concerns and consolidate your findings.”
Step Away From The Keyboard
“People often search the Internet to cope with fear,” says Dr Barmi. This may lead you to draw serious conclusions based on general symptoms. Advises Dr gupta “If you have any fear of disease or have genuine doubts, then it is advisable to consult the doctor. One-on-one interaction with the doctor will always help allay your fears.”
FINDING A RELIABLE HEALTH BLOG
There are certain things you expect a doctor to write for you; prescriptions, a treatment plan, a note for your boss. But a blog? No way. “Blogs aren’t for reading about competing treatments, new drug trials, or even physician perceptions,” says Dr Gupta. What they are for is support for the emotional aspects of your diagnosis. “Does your doctor really understand what it’s like to have your condition?” asks Edward Miller, Ph.D., a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of Digital Medicine. “Blogs provide access to other people who are experiencing what you’re experiencing.” Your three-step Rx:
Follow A Trailblazer
The ideal blog is one written by a patent who’s at least one step ahead of you in treatment. “This can give you a sense of what to expect next,” says Miller. “These are the people who can answer questions like, ‘How is this going to affect my relationship with my wife? Will I still be able to play soccer with my kids?” to find a relevant blog, search for your condition at google.com/blogsearch.
Leave The Lurking To Others
Once you start following a blog, don’t hesitate to engage. “Blogs address an individual’s concerns and let you share your experiences with others,” says Dr barmi. Research shows journaling can encourage people to take control of their own care, and interacting online may offer a similar benefit, says Tufts University researchers.
Check Your Expectations
No matter how connected you eventually feel, remember that the blogger is neither your doctor nor your double; another person’s experience will never be a perfect parallel to your own. Even if you share a condition with a blogger, certain details – other complicating health problems, for example – may make his or her treatment different from yours, warns Dr Gupta.
“The only way to know for sure is to consult a doctor. No blog should be used as a source to determine the treatment of the disease.”
DIGESTING HEALTH HEADLINES
With one notable exception – this magazine’s website, natch – online news coverage of medical findings can range from spotty to spectacularity bad. The biggest problem? Oversimplification. “Really big studies often have a very narrow focus, so it’s difficult to generalise from them,” says Lindsay Thompson, an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Florida. “People who translate studies into news need to understand the nuances.” The simple fix:
Research The Research
Before you run with that too-good-to-be- true news – like “Beet Juice Can Prevent Prostate Cancer!” – dig a little deeper, says Dr Barmi. Did the researchers account for factors that may influence results, such as race, age and past medical condition? “For instance, studies claim that fruit juices are good for health but they forget to add that they can be fatal to people who are diabetic or are suffering from kidney diseases,” says Dr Gupta. And how big was the study? Two hundred people is considered large for behavioural or psychological studies but very small for drug studies. Finally, consider profit motiv. Are the researchers affiliated with a group that may have a conflict of interest, like the National Beet Council? To look for a more detailed summary of the study, call your doctor, who can help you interpret the findings.