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5 Tips For Diagnosing Yourself Online

“What’s the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley or Denali?” This is a great question the Web can answer for you. “What’s that lump on my neck?”  This is another great question — but not one you should rely on the Web to solve.

Best Doctors recently conducted a Twitter-based poll to find out what channels of information people use to get healthcare advice.  It turns out, 54 percent of respondents use the Web as their primary source of information. Is this kind of do-it-yourself medicine a good idea?

I’m a firm believer that you should do everything you can to make sure you’re getting the right care when you’re sick. But before you start your do-it-yourself journey, here are five things to keep in mind:

1. To get the right answer, you need to ask  the right questions. If you decide that that lump on your neck is a sign of lymphoma, you’re going to get very worried and start researching everything you can on lymphoma. You may see your doctor and when he tells you it’s actually a benign cyst, you’re going to have a hard time believing him. Now, your skepticism is a good thing, but before you start driving yourself crazy with serious conclusions, make sure you have your facts straight.

2. Consider the source. Is what you’re reading written or sponsored by a company with its own agenda? If there are links to other information, who wrote that information? Is the article you’re reading quoting an unknown medical journal article about a study on four people? As in every age, there are snake oil salesmen, and the Internet has many of them plying their trade. Don’t assume that just because it’s on the Internet it’s true.

3. No health information on the Web is going to be about you. Sure, you can find lots of detailed, highly educational information, but whatever you’re reading doesn’t take into account your specific circumstances, your medical history, your family’s medical history. Sometimes these can be the most important factors of all. Use what you read to help you learn more about your condition, but remember: the most important information of all is about you.

4. Make sure what you’ve got fresh information. Medical science is constantly advancing, and so information that is even a year old may be terribly out of date. Check to see when what you were reading was published. If it’s old, see if you can find a more recent version of it, or fresher references to the same subject.

5. Be careful of the tricks your mind can play on you. It is a known phenomenon that you are likely to be influenced in diagnosing yourself by your knowledge of the experience of someone you know, or something you are afraid of. For example, if you know someone who died of a heart attack, you are  more likely to notice chest pain and think maybe you’re having a heart attack, too. (Shark attacks are an interesting example of this — from 1670 until 2009 there were a total of only 41 reported deaths from shark attacks in the United States — yet sharks may be the most feared creature in America.) Don’t fall prey to your own mind.

So, yes — use the Web, but be smart about it. And don’t stop with what you read. Be proactive and tap into whatever other resources are available to you. Make sure you get the right care.

As for the highest peak in North America? It’s Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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