In a world where trips to the GP are costly and free medical advice is available at the touch of a button, Orla Keaveney weighs in on whether online medical sites cause more harm than good.
WE have all heard the jokes before: “I checked my headache symptoms on WebMD and now I have cancer.” It is eye-roll inducing, but the fact remains that 90% of us consult medical websites when we are sick. With two in three online diagnoses proving to be inaccurate, do the dangers of these sites outweigh the benefits?
“Fake news” has seeped into the health industry – stories of bizarre diseases or unorthodox “miracle cures” spread faster than more conventional medical practices, even if they are exaggerated or completely untrue. Perhaps most infamously, the reports linking autism to certain vaccinations have proven to be highly inaccurate and unscientific. Still, many people have been scared off vaccines by these claims.
“when we are hoping for a particular outcome, we are subconsciously biased towards believing evidence that supports our expectations rather than contradicting them.”
More recently, a British woman refused state-funded radiotherapy, claiming that her breast cancer could be cured by following a strict vegan diet. Many doctors criticised the reporting of her story as they give false hope to desperate cancer victims who are terrified at the prospect of proven but painful cures like mastectomies or radiotherapy.
Some sites may also have a hidden agenda. For instance, a site sponsored by a drug company is far more likely to recommend pills than possibly more suitable alternatives. Blogs in particular are not to be trusted for medical advice, as one bad experience can bias anyone irrationally against a treatment and foster suspicions of scientific findings.
Even when the medical facts are accurate, many people do not fully understand the exact implications of a condition, especially when the sites intended for other doctors use confusing jargon or terminology. Another factor that can affect our interpretation of information is a psychological phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’ – when we are hoping for a particular outcome, we are subconsciously biased towards believing evidence that supports our expectations rather than contradicting them.
So if, hoping to get off work, a person reads that their symptoms could range from “a mild head cold to the flu”, they are likely to accept the latter. Similarly, someone with a fear of unpleasant medical treatments like colonoscopies or vaccines will convince themselves that their condition is not serious enough to warrant such measures.
“The problem arises when patients walk into their GP’s office parroting medical terminology they have read off their phones.”
Even if you do decide to get a professional opinion as medical sites often recommend, the impact of the internet has impaired doctors’ judgement. For many GPs, the internet is an invaluable tool to stay on top of the latest treatments, and they increasingly consult reputable sites like the Mayo Clinic or the NHS Health A-Z in making decisions.
The problem arises when patients walk into their GPs office parroting medical terminology they have read off their phones. Other times, it damages the traditionally paternalistic doctor-patient relationship when the patient is insisting on treatments or tests that the doctor feels are unnecessary or harmful.
However, a better-informed public might not be a bad thing. Knowing what their doctors are talking about can give people the confidence to ask questions and deepen their understanding. And the prospect of surgery or other invasive treatments can seem far less daunting when you understand what is going on and why you need it (as long as all gory videos are avoided beforehand).
When done correctly, medical websites have the proven potential to relieve the strain on the health service. According to a study carried out by the British Medical Journal, the introduction of an evidence-based, jargon-free health information website by the Dutch College of General Practitioners led to a 12% decrease in consultations in the Netherlands within two years.
A similar system could be brought in by the Irish health system, to alleviate the immense pressure on its services. But given the already stretched budget of the HSE, it is unlikely that a state-funded, reliable website will be available in the near future. For now, there are a few things that can be done to get the most out of medical websites without jeopardising your health.
“The introduction of an evidence-based, jargon-free health information website by the Dutch College of General Practitioners led to a 12% decrease in consultations in the Netherlands within two years.”
It is important to look at a few different resources, not just the one that pops up first when you Google “blocked nose” or “stomach cramps”. It can be hard to find the most credible sites but by shopping around, you are less likely to be convinced by unreliable ones.
If, after scouring the internet and covering yourself in home remedies, a visit to the GP is still in order, it is then important to explain what the basis for the self-diagnosis was. Do not be offended if the doctor disregards the findings – online medical advice can never compare with that of a doctor.
While the internet’s role in medical practice has multiple negative consequences, it has the potential to make healthcare more efficient. The key is to make the accurate, science-based information more accessible to the general public, and to reinforce faith in the knowledge of doctors over any website.