The perils of internet health research

Doctor on computer screen sending stethoscope out to patient using computerSometimes questions arise between doctor visits. Since we can’t just run the question by our doctors without an appointment, we often rely on the internet to bridge that gap. I’ve already hassled you relentlessly for researching health concerns on the internet. Since you probably haven’t heeded my warnings, I thought I’d provide some unsolicited guidance on how to manage such research:

1) If you’re health anxious like me, and think any ache or pain may indicate cancer, know that cancer is a possible explanation for everything. Then don’t assume that your ache or pain is cancerous. Sure, a pain in the ass may indicate cancer, but it could also mean you’ve pulled a muscle at the gym. (Not assuming the worst is easier said than done, I realize.)

Blue Health button on computer keyboard in place of Return button2) If you’re going to consult the internet, use a reputable site. Many sites are not carefully scrutinized, and there are quacks in any profession and laypeople masquerading as experts.

3) Find someone who is a step removed to vet the information for you. J. is my trusty internet researcher when I fear what I might find. She’s good at not assuming the worst, and she ferrets out the information I need to know. Sometimes she even omits stuff that might make me anxious. She’s not stewing about that worst possibility, and she knows it won’t help me to.

4) Consider the internet after you discuss your concern with your physician. Make sure you clarify everything you are stewing about directly with your doctor, and then evaluate whether you still need that internet search.

Cord to mouse looks like EKG line5) Consider your suggestibility quotient. For example, I rarely research medication side effects until after I’ve started a drug because I know I’d have every side effect listed. I also figure my doctor or pharmacist will tell me the important ones. Checking after I’ve been on the medication may explain any reactions I’ve had.

6) Seek information from another medical professional, such as your nurse practitioner, your pharmacist or the knowledgeable nurse at the end of your local medical phone line (it’s HealthLink in Alberta). Often these people have answers at the ready.

7) Finally, use chat rooms with caution. The first room I visited was filled with personal horror stories, including that of a woman who believed that polycythemia had prevented her from carrying a pregnancy to term. I have no idea whether that’s true, but being sideswiped by this possibility was distressing at that time. I know chat rooms can be a great support for some, but make sure you find a safe room with like-minded people; if you feel worse–more hopeless or more scared–after you venture in, you probably want to vacate the premises pronto.

Maybe I’m the only one who usually feels worse, i.e., more terrified, more hopeless, closer to death, when I consult the internet than when I don’t. I’ve come across some pretty awful stuff on line, stuff that’s left me stewing for days, or at least until I could chat with my doctor. So please proceed with caution, especially if you’re anxious like me.

Or just ignore me and keep doing what you’re doing. But if you’re upset by what you find, you may hear me whispering, “I told you so.”


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