In sickness and in health, the webdoc will see you now
NET RESULTS:We’ve all been there, I think. A little ache here, a little pain there, a funny something that doesn’t seem quite right. Should you see the GP? Or – more likely – just Google?
Surveys, including a new one from Pew research in the US, indicate that most of us tend to opt for a website rather than a waiting room, at least in the first instance.
Of the 81 per cent of Americans who use the internet, the survey found that the vast majority – 72 per cent – had used it to search for health information in the previous year, with 35 per cent specifically going online to research a health issue for themselves or someone they knew.
A survey of Australians last year similarly revealed that about 80 per cent said they went to the net for health information. One in the UK in April found a majority of 1,000 women interviewed said they went online first to research medical conditions.
With a wide range now of reliable health information sites such as WebMD.com, Mayoclinic.com, Netdoctor.co.uk, Patient.co.ukand Irishhealth.com, people can get medically verified information on a plethora of symptoms and conditions.
On the plus side, using such information can be extremely helpful in pinpointing a possible problem – or in providing some reassurance that one’s worst fears are overblown. The web also provides detail about conditions in a more understandable fashion for many patients who find they do not always understand what their doctor is saying. The New England Journal of Medicine found that over half of patients they surveyed in 2010 said they did not understand what their doctors told them on office visits.
The downside is that, based on some common symptoms, many people become convinced they have deadly conditions they do not have or they think they have a condition that doesn’t need care, when they have one that does.
In the first category fall what researchers call “cyberchondriacs” – people obsessed with the notion that they have a serious health problem who discover the net will confirm just about any suspicion.
Perhaps though it isn’t just the people themselves – the net inadvertently supports panicky self-diagnoses. Two Microsoft researchers looking at cyberchondria examined the behaviour and internet use of a million internet users back in 2009. They found that when a person entered “headache”, a quarter of all returns to a search engine included information on brain tumours. Yet only 0.002 per cent of people develop such tumours.
Then, there’s the problem of misdiagnosis. The UK survey, which was carried out in 2012 by a woman’s health brand, Balance Activ, found that half of the women surveyed said they had self-diagnosed on the web, then gone to a pharmacy to buy over-the-counter remedies without speaking with a pharmacist. A quarter actually misdiagnosed themselves, with one in 10 admitting they endured uncomfortable side-effects from those over-the-counter treatments.
A fifth had at one time worried they had a serious condition based on an internet self-diagnosis – most often, breast cancer – when they did not. Top wrong diagnoses also included thrush, asthma and high blood pressure. The latter three conditions are all easily diagnosed at a GP’s office, of course. The good news – at least with the Americans surveyed by Pew – is that cyberchondriacs are in the minority.
Most people will indeed seek out their doctor if they are truly concerned and seem well able to tell if it’s a good idea to get a medical opinion. The survey showed that 46 per cent of the online diagnosers said the condition they had looked up had needed the attention of a doctor, 38 per cent said it could be managed at home and 11 per cent noted the condition was in between the two.
Interestingly, 53 per cent did go to their GP, 41 per cent said a clinician confirmed the diagnosis and 18 per cent were told they didn’t have the suspected condition.
I know that some doctors – and vets, for those of us with pets – get quite irritated at patients or clients who show up with web- based concerns and information. I have met them – and I don’t return because it says more about their need to control a relationship than to listen, as caregivers, to what may be very real concerns.
The Pew research confirms my own strong feelings from personal experience – that, setting aside a minority, the web allows people to take control of health issues in an efficient way that brings an earlier diagnosis than might otherwise happen and prompter treatment by a professional when needed.