Published October 18, 2012
We're becoming a nation of DIY doctors: A whopping 80 percent of Internet users have turned to the Web for health help, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
"We take it for granted that you can, for instance, look up the side effects for a prescription on your mobile device as the pharmacist fills your order, but this instant access to digital health information now is pretty remarkable," notes Betsy Humphreys, deputy director of the U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.
So, where to go for the best advice? We've got the scoop.
Do a better search
Bookmark sites (like Health.com) that are affiliated with trusted sources—that way, you know the articles are well researched and up-to-date.
And avoid doing broad searches; Google "knee pain" and you'll get about 30 million results. "The drawback of a general search, whether you need quick help for a burn on your hand or more insight into a just-diagnosed allergy, is you get a mix of information, some of which could be inaccurate or irrelevant," says Lisa Gualtieri, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, who specializes in tech and health.
Set up e-subscriptions
"We're seeing an evolution from patients searching for information online to information finding patients," says Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, a Houston doctor who writes 33charts.com.
Sign up for a Google Alert on any topic, and an email with links will show up daily, weekly, or as new content is available (your choice). You can also pick the media sources, like news outlets or videos. Be sure to click on "only the best results."
Read til the end
Lists of symptoms that ran from general to specific (and vice versa) were more likely to make healthy people think they were at higher risk for cancer, compared with lists that mixed the order of general symptoms (like fatigue) and illness-specific signs, finds a recent study in Psychological Science. Order varies by site, so read it all.
Notes Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, "Almost anyone with almost any symptom can find a dreadful disease online to match it. Explore and investigate, but discuss findings with your doctor."
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Reach out to pros
Follow your health-care providers on Twitter. For more good health tweeps, click on "Browse categories" in the "Who to follow" section.
"Feel free to ask questions—you get to interact with people you might not connect with in daily life," says Claire Díaz-Ortiz, Twitter's social innovation manager and author of Twitter for Good. (OK, Dr. Andrew Weil may not respond, but a celeb trainer might.)
At new site healthtap.com, users can submit questions to doctors and browse answers.
Do a virtual office visit
Video-chat with a doc at 11:30 p.m. about your sinus attack? It's possible on sites like Teladoc. At NowClinic, you can log on 24/7 to interact with a licensed MD—typically internists and family physicians—regarding nonemergency issues ($45 for 10 minutes).
Video visits may be helpful for those who live far from health care, or those with after-hours problems. These docs can prescribe only nonnarcotics, such as antibiotics.
Score insider help
To trade notes with other cyber-dwellers, hit healthcentral.com or mdjunction.com. Or check curetogether.com and patientslikeme.com, which gather user-shared data, then compile reports anyone can browse.
"Even though my doctor told me about side effects of migraine medication," says Erika Boehm, 45, of Dublin, Calif., "the worry lessened when I read it hasn't been a problem for most people."
Go for e-records
More than half of U.S. physicians have switched to electronic health records (EHR). Besides the quick access to data, "EHR is an easy way for doctors to share visit summaries with patients to see if they have questions—much more enabling than notes in a chart," says Dr. Stephanie Moore, medical director at Harvard's Center for Connected Health.
They're good checkpoints, too: 41 percent of docs who use EHRs report being alerted to possible medication errors. One downside: "People complain they're looking at the side of a doctor's head while he enters data as they're talking!" Moore says. "Speak up, absolutely, if the doctor's distracted."
Avoid pseudo-health sites
Some sites have a secret agenda—peddling supplements or other wellness products—and it's often unclear it's a company-backed site. If the text sounds one-sided, it probably is.
Don't fall for old news
"Outdated information can have incorrect advice, like recommending medication pulled from the market," Humphreys says. Check for a date.
Don't visit only Dr. Google
"A diagnosis is something a doctor and patient arrive at together, based on information from the patient, an exam, and sometimes tests," says Dr. Ted Eytan, of Kaiser Permanente in Washington, D.C.
So before your next visit, print out info you find online and bring it to your doc; you'll get the best of both health worlds.