The internet is, as we know, a digital high seas, so when we seek answers about our health (and, according to Pew research,”80% of us do ), we are entering open waters. But we do it anyway in the hope that we can relieve anxiety.

Here’s a useful caution offered by Hubpages: “Medical websites do not show which symptoms are considered the most important or significant,” because, of course, they can’t.

For example, if we seek information about a severe headache, we may get a generalized list of possible causes, depending on the circumstances. But an experienced clinician who examines a patient in person might diagnose giant cell temporal arteritis, an inflammation of the temporal arteries that can lead to blindness or stroke—but is easily treated if detected.

The skinny: We should never go to the internet for advice as an alternative to seeing a qualified doctor in person. We should ask ourselves honestly, why don’t I want to see a doctor about this?

There is also the less serious but slightly embarrassing risk of convincing ourselves that we know what is wrong as a result of consulting “Dr. Google,” only to be told by our comparatively mundane local medic, Dr. Bloodwork, that the problem is something else entirely. And worse, that it must be treated in a way we have not read up on.

So why should we go to the internet? Assuming our health issues have been correctly identified, we can learn things professionals do not have time to explain and things that are best understood by online communities of people who are living with the condition. One doctor calls that approach being an “empowered” patient.

A formal study in 2012 found:

… patients with access to their online records and other self-service tools from their provider made more visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms compared to people without those tools available.

But it’s hard to know how to interpret that finding because 1) it would take much larger and longer term studies to determine whether more frequent consultation resulted in better health; and 2) people who seek health information online may be more motivated to take further steps already.

A new coinage, “cyberchondria,” refers to the worry some people experience from overdosing on medical information online:

Many people turn to the Internet to learn more about their ailments and, hopefully, match their symptoms to a likely cause. But the web’s vast stockpile of (sometimes false) information can actually backfire when people come across rare and horrific diseases that have no bearing in the first place… It’s a question of the art vs. the science of medicine.”

Yes, medicine was an art long before it was a science, and will likely stay that way.

See also: Robotic surgery: Paging Dr. Carebot? At first glance, it sounds impersonal, sterile. But there are pros and cons.

A brief introduction to how online medical information can help, used wisely:




Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...