Googling your symptoms? Here's how to do it better

Dr. Danielle Martin explains what should know before turning to the internet for a consult.
By Dr. Danielle Martin
health advice online Illustration, Shutterstock.

Patients often arrive at my office with stacks of online research, and while I applaud their efforts to be informed about their health, I always remind them that not all Google results are created equal. Yes, there is plenty of good health-related information on the internet, but — let’s be honest — there is also no shortage of nonsense.

Still, I’m always grateful when they bring in the material they’ve found so we can discuss it. For one thing, it helps me better understand what they’re most concerned about, and it may even lead to diagnostic or therapeutic options that hadn’t occurred to me. (Secretly, most doctors are prepared for the possibility that they’ll learn something from what their patients read online.) But even though the internet can help you take a more active role in your care, it should never be used to make significant changes to your treatment plan without your doctor’s guidance.

It’s also good to remember that the websites that come up first when you search aren’t necessarily the most reliable — they’re often there because companies have paid for those top spots. Then there are sites that appear objective but are actually commercial sites funded by the makers of remedies, products or services (this includes pharmaceutical companies and diet promoters, as well as health-gadget and herbal-supplements manufacturers). If you can’t tell who is funding the website, that’s your first clue that the content could be biased.

Even when browsing credible health websites, you may still find yourself faced with conflicting information — sometimes it’s simply because there isn’t a single right answer to your question. I frequently tell patients who are looking for information on a specific topic (pregnancy, for example, or a chronic disease they’ve been diagnosed with) to choose only one reputable website and one recently published book. Any more than that and you can make yourself crazy reading contradictory views. In most cases, you probably don’t have to go much further than a site from a trusted health organization, one that refreshes its content regularly and clearly states in each article when the information was last updated.

Even then, online health information just isn’t the same as professional medical advice. It can’t take your specific circumstances, your health history or your values and preferences into consideration — but your doctor can.

Bookmark these three reliable online sources for health information

Doctor. Danielle Martin, Chatelaine columnist

Dr. Danielle Martin is a family physician and vice-president, medical affairs and health system solutions, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. 


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