Is A Little Knowledge Helpful or Dangerous?

By Jason Poole

We all think it. When you have an unusual ache or a pain, or a tender spot, or some nagging pressure somewhere… you think, “is it serious?” Your mind will race off to scary places. Is that rash some form of cancer? Is that burning in my chest heart disease? Could this headache be an aneurysm? Or a brain tumor?

In the past, we would go about our life, waiting for these small afflictions to go away by themselves. Most of the time, they would prove to be a simple rash, or indigestion, or a headache. If the problem persisted, we would eventually see a doctor. We could present a list of symptoms, and some calendar of events, and the doctor could help us out.

That was before the Internet Age. Our fully-connected world has changed the way we respond to those mysterious aches and pains. We have instant access to information from all over the world, in the palm of our hand. In a study released last week by the Pew Research Center, it is estimated that over 80% of Internet users search online for health information. This can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse, for two significant reasons. Most of us don’t have the ability to filter out and assess medical information the way a healthcare professional can, and not all the information out there is valid.

When a doctor looks at your symptoms and tries to diagnose a problem, they draw on many things. Published information, deeply ingrained learning, diagnosis software, and hopefully, a huge pool of experience. Assessing a group of symptoms to discover a cause to an ailment is not an exact science. It often cannot be narrowed down to A+B=C. When a person without medical training looks online, their experience can be misleading, frightening, or flat-out dangerous. A common result is over-diagnosis. The web hypochondriac. The nervous parent who looks up some symptoms and becomes convinced that her child has early signs of a terrible disease. These things can be annoying or disturbing, but the stress and fear can be real. More dangerous is the possibility of a misleading conclusion, that leads to inaction or harmful action. Someone may look online and decide that they know what is wrong, and by undertaking their own course of care, they could neglect or impede good care for the true problem.

The other problem with this boom of Internet-powered self-diagnosis is the lack of reliability or accountability in the resources. There are obviously some very respectable sources of information. Some of them even have useful and helpful ‘online-diagnosis’ tools. But the problem is that a random Google search for a set of symptoms can yield a terrifying array of results. Many of these results will provide completely inaccurate, and sometimes dangerous ideas for diagnosis and treatment.

The bottom line is this: Feel free to dig. Knowledge is always a good thing. But be careful that the information you are getting is from a reliable source, and always verify any course of treatment with a medical professional. It is great to go to a doctor with some ideas, some knowledge, and some suggestions. But be careful that you don’t go into an appointment thinking you absolutely know what should be done. Be open-minded, and communicate with your care-provider, so that you can combine your research skills with their education and experience.