Why you should care
You’re going to Google your symptoms anyway, so you might as well do it the right way.
Recent polls show that “cyberchondria” — the tendency to obsessively research one’s health problems online — is on the rise. The potential troubles with this are manifold, ranging from the particular ways search-engine algorithms rank pages to an amateur researcher’s inability to parse the information in the best way. One symptom of cyberchondria: Googling some combination of a symptom + the-particular-disease-you-fear-most. The search giant, like an over-eager golden retriever, dutifully returns 6 million fear-confirming results, the first three pages of which confirm it: Yep, that’s one symptom of that disease, all right. This exacerbates one’s anxiety and can even lead to further symptoms, which are also Googled and confirmed as fatal. Without a health-care professional in the room to guide you through the other 10,000 things it could be, you go with what you already knew: You’re dying.
The current limbo of the national health-care system makes things worse. If you’re already health-paranoid, hearing from some corners that you’ll lose your health plan and your favorite doctor, only to die, eventually, at the decree of a death panel doesn’t help your hypochondria. Regardless of the veracity of such claims, it doesn’t take complicated math to predict that with an entire nation finally insured, one thing will probably get more difficult rather than easier: getting to see your now-even-busier doctor.
But let’s face it: Whether it’s a good idea or not, the first thing you’re going to do is Google or Bing your ailments. So is there a way to stay reasonably informed about your health this way? We’ve come up with a few useful guidelines.
1. Before you do a Google search, go straight to the best sources.
Sites like WebMD and the Mayo Clinic have advanced symptom-checker software, and professional organizations like the American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, American Urological Society and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists typically have best-practice guidelines and position statements you can find.
2. Understand your search engine’s limitations.
The first pages of a Google search are based on (among many other factors) the most-clicked but not necessarily the most relevant or trustworthy sites. With so much information out there, if you type in your symptom combined with the disease you’re most afraid of, something connecting the two will come back, no matter how ludicrous. What’s worse: Other cyberchondriacs are pushing the most sensational, frightening links to the top.
3. Use what the pros use.
UpToDate.com, as its name suggests, corrals the most current medical studies and advice out there. But the old adage that you get what you pay for is true even in cyberchondria-land: For patients, it offers a seven-day subscription for $19.95, or 30 days for $44.95.
4. Whenever possible, visit a specialist site.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has specific information about infectious and sexually transmitted diseases. The DermQuest Image Library has thousands of pictures of skin ailments, which might help you to narrow yours down to something non-lethal.
5. Be patient with science; it’s still learning.
Every week a new study comes out, but there’s a big difference between the latest sensational study and comprehensive, well-established medical advice. Make sure what you’re reading is backed by professional medical organizations, which means the studies have been repeated and peer-reviewed extensively. Otherwise, it’s likely to be debunked next week.
6. Take alternative medicine advice with a grain of (comprehensive, well-researched) salt.
A good deal of what’s quoted by health gurus positioned outside the mainstream might be true, and it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide what to believe. Even so, modern medicine has come a long way, and it’s rather doubtful that you’ll cure a cancerous tumor or reverse multiple sclerosis simply by changing your diet. If the advice you’re getting hasn’t undergone (and passed) the rigor of hard scientific study, there might be a reason, and it probably has nothing to do with a government cover-up.
7. Make sure your information is current.
Check the dates on web pages, textbooks and pamphlets. If a site seems to be relying on old information, use Google’s advanced options to narrow your search to what’s been published in recent years. (But keep Rule #5 in mind when you do!)
8. Don’t forget about books.
Your local library has tons of them, and you can borrow them for free! Medical textbooks are often great for summarizing symptoms and diagnostic criteria in an understandable format. As always, though, check the source and make sure the info is up to date.
9. Use Google Scholar.
Here you’ll find peer-reviewed articles on a wide range of medical issues — all written and reviewed by experts. But again, keep Rule #5 in mind; a single study or article isn’t enough to trust your health to.
10. Step away from the computer.
If what you’re reading is making you anxious, distract yourself with another, healthier activity (we recommend taking a walk). Take deep breaths and repeat: “It is unlikely that I’m dying. It is unlikely that I’m dying.”
11. For the love of God, go see a doctor.
Make an appointment if you’re worried about something, especially if it persists. Go to the emergency room if you’re having symptoms that could point to something fatal like a stroke or heart attack. It’s not worth the chance that you and the Internet are wrong.