Medical information on the web has pros and cons
BERLIN, Jan 02, 2012 (dpa - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
You feel a twinge in your stomach and there is no obvious explanation. Or maybe, for no apparent reason, you get a stabbing headache. To whom -- or to what -- do you turn first? According to various studies, there is a good chance it is the internet.
"About 65 per cent of respondents now state that they have recently searched for health content on the internet," said Marie-Luise Dierks, co-director of the Hanover Patients' University, an independent education institution at Hanover Medical School in Germany. Some, though by no means all of them, try to diagnose themselves.
Independently researching a health-related matter on the internet can indeed be useful, said Dierks, who said it is a good way to boost one's self-reliance and confidence in dealing with illnesses, doctors and medicine. But she added a caveat: "It's important, however, that information from the web always be called into question."
Health care professionals are divided on the internet as a source of medical information.
"There is nothing wrong with informing oneself," said Ursula Marschall, medical director of Barmer GEK, a German public health insurance company.
But she said it is dangerous to regard the internet as more credible than one's doctor. Noting that "patients always have their own notions about their illness," she said those who did internet research were at risk of latching onto information that supports their preconceptions, even if those are completely wrong.
Maria Gropalis, a psychologist at Mainz University's Department of Psychology, also sees risks. "The danger of misinformation is very high on the internet. The overabundance of information can be a problem as well" -- particularly for hypochondriacs, she said. "There's the risk that the internet will intensify existing fears."
A word has even been coined for unfounded anxiety concerning the state of one's health brought on by visiting medical websites: "cyberchondria." While Gropalis views the neologism as mainly a vogue word, she said the phenomenon it described was definitely a modern variety of hypochondria.
"Hypochondriacs don't imagine their symptoms, but they interpret them incorrectly," remarked Gropalis, who said the internet was a dangerous intensifier in this regard. While many people go online to calm their health fears, she noted, oftentimes the opposite happens. A web search can quickly turn a common headache due to fatigue or dehydration into a brain tumour in the mind of the searcher.
Gropalis has an especially low opinion of online discussion forums, where people often lay out their personal medical history. She said most participants in such forums have had negative experiences -- long waits for a diagnosis or misdiagnoses, for instance. "Forums are very often a source of disquiet," she said.
For non-hypochondriacs, surfing the internet in search of possible reasons for feeling unwell is much less problematic. But independent research, Marschall warned, can never replace patient-doctor communication.
"This communication, just like the physical examination, is an extremely important diagnostic tool. You get neither on the internet," she said, pointing out that doctors make a diagnosis not only on the basis of acute symptoms. "They take them as a point of reference, ask questions based on them and look at the patient as a whole."
For people who seek medical information online, Marschall recommends medical societies' patient guidelines. "They translate medical jargon into everyday language, and the information is provided by experts and based on the latest research," she said.
Websites of governmental agencies and public health insurance companies are reliable sources in the view of Dierks, who advised people doing health-related research online to always look to see whether someone is responsible for the content, and if so, who the person is. She also issued a warning: "I'd be wary of websites where something is for sale."
Dierks said it was also important how patients dealt with online information when consulting a doctor. They should use credible web information to help formulate their questions, not present the doctor with a pack of computer printouts along with their preconceived diagnosis.
With the right approach, she said, the web-savvy patient will be better able to understand his or her physician.
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