The internet can be an amazing thing. Where else can you read the daily headlines, connect with old friends and find silly cat videos? If you’re wondering what a fever, dry cough and chills could be, there are symptom checkers you can use. In fact, you can find a lot of medical information online, but how do you know what to trust?
One of the strengths of the internet is it allows anyone to start their own website and share information. That strength can also be a weakness because you don’t have to be a credentialed expert to share anything. That’s why it’s up to the reader to decide if the content is trustworthy, and when it comes to medical information, you must be extra careful.
Carlos Ventura, MD, who specializes in geriatrics and internal medicine at the Banner Health Center in Buckeye, weighs in on the subject. He says much of what you find online will be generic and can be confusing.
Finding good sources
Some key warning signs that you may not want to trust what you read include websites trying to sell you something or those that ask you to register before giving you any medical advice, according to Dr. Ventura. The issue is you can’t trust that the company would put sound medical advice before company profits.
So, how do you know what information you can trust? Dr. Ventura suggests going to websites from respectable organizations, such as:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force
- Other Federal government agencies
- Well-known medical organizations
- Educational organizations, including universities and training organizations
“When in doubt, talk to your doctor about any medical concern,” Dr. Ventura said.
Some of the larger sites, such as Healthline or WebMD, may have correct information, but Dr. Ventura says to read with a heavy dose of caution. While the information may be correct, these websites follow a business model relying on sponsors and advertisers.
“Take their advice at face value: A computer system giving you an opinion without ever putting a finger on you to examine and confirm findings,” Dr. Ventura said.
Additionally, make sure you check the date on anything you read online. Because the internet is a huge archive, things that have been disproven often have a way of resurfacing on social media. It could be the information is correct, too, but new research could mean new ways to treat certain conditions.
Online symptom checkers
There isn’t anything wrong with turning to the internet to find information, but you need to be careful with where the information comes from. The issue is that most medical information must be simplified, so people without a lot of medical knowledge can understand it.
Dr. Ventura explains that, while this can be useful, it can also confuse things. As these sites try to make symptoms and diagnosis easy to understand, it can become confusing because many diseases share the same symptoms.
Dr. Ventura says, while online symptom checkers can be useful, they should never take the place of a physical exam by a doctor. Remember, some medical conditions can share symptoms, and the only way to truly determine what you may have is through a careful examination.
Certainly, that’s not to say you should never use these symptom checkers. Dr. Ventura says he has had some patients use one and then follow up with him. He was able to make an important diagnosis and start the patient on treatment.
And, that is a key point. Never trust an online symptom checker to make an accurate or diagnostic. They are not able to offer a conclusion, final diagnosis or treatment recommendation.
“You and your doctor will have to complete a physical exam,” Dr. Ventura said. “Some testing may be necessary, and ultimately, the expertise of your provider is always necessary to determine any diagnosis and to provide appropriate medical therapy.”
You may be able to use online symptom checkers to help ease your mind. However, it’s important not to fall into the cyberchondria trap, where you begin to think you have exotic diseases based on a couple of similar symptoms. And, don’t forget, your doctor is there for you.
“As they always say, ‘listen to your body,’” Dr. Ventura said. “With or without online symptoms checkers, if you feel their something not right within your body, please talk to your doctor.”