Health Information on the Web May Put People at Risk for Misdiagnosis

Have a migraine? Go online and find out why.

At least, the idea of online doctoring seems to be what more Americans are programmed to do these days when it comes to gathering health, nutrition, and even information on medical conditions.

In fact, more than two-thirds of the people surveyed by the Opinion Research Corp. for the Kellen Co., reported obtaining some form of medical information on the Internet. More than 1,000 adults across the U.S. were studied and 82 percent said that they search for specific health and nutrition advice while 62 percent believe it is actually accurate information, and 89 percent said that they would follow the advice that they found.

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Americans are finding exactly what’s ailing them and how to cure it from articles and diagrams on the Internet, whether they believe it’s true or not, according to the study, a move that can do more harm than good, according to Susan Taylor, a dietician for the Kellen Co. of Columbus, Ohio.

A plethora of medical Web sites like WebMD and iVillage, as well as individual health blogs, may be full of experts, and non-experts, offering advice and information on everything from weight loss to kidney disease and pregnancy. They may also put people at risk for misdiagnosing a medical condition or following the advice of someone who ‘thinks’ they are an expert in a particular area, according to experts.

“I call the Internet a blessing and a curse,” said Taylor. “It’s a great resource for a lot of information, and that’s the blessing. The curse is that everyone can post, and a lot of people think that they are experts in a certain field. There are a lot of urban myths out there and people are starting to believe them. Certain people have a special mind set and all you really have to do is buy a Web site address, and all of a sudden it becomes gospel. People really need to understand that they need to check out the sources.”

Truth or Dare

These “urban myths” are what lead more Americans to misdiagnose their health or nutritional questions from the comfort of their own home.

Most people are looking for something that is personal to them, whether this information is true or not. It’s also easy and people can find out what’s ailing them in the comfort of their home without co-payments, sitting in waiting rooms or getting penciled into a doctor’s busy schedule, according to Taylor.

“It’s all over the place,” said Taylor. “It’s purely opinion. First of all, it doesn’t cost anything as opposed to having a primary care physician, which may take weeks to schedule. Some people are looking for a symptoms of a disease. We’re not all hypochondriacs, but it’s just human nature. We know what information is out there. The key is, if you look for information, you also need to check with a health organization that has a solid background, not just someone deciding that they want to put something up there.”

Get a second opinion

Dr. Keri M. Gans, president of the New York State Dietetic Association and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association said that all Web sites are not bad. People just have to know the difference between opinion and medical fact.

“Not all Web sites are created equal,” she said. “Unfortunately, some sites are not based on science but rather an unqualified person's individual opinion. Some Web sites, though, can be an excellent source of information, because they base their recommendations on research and use registered dietitians as the nutrition experts.”

Most people choose the Internet because it is ultimately easier to use, but double-checking with a doctor or consulting with a registered dietician is key to safety long-term, according to Gans. She added that most people search for weight-loss solutions, but they must still be wary of sites offering quick results or ones selling product.

The ease of going to the doctor online is not going to go away anytime soon because the Internet is 24 hours, said Taylor. But people need to be skeptical of what they choose to believe and follow when it comes to their health and nutrition. “How this can affect one’s health, we will find out one of these days,” she added.