By Dr Nirvana Luckraj
We’re all guilty of it – going down an internet rabbit hole trying to find the reason our child has warts or their poo is yellow. But is Dr Google helping, or harming us?
Dr Nirvana Luckraj, chief medical officer of government-funded website Healthdirect, said the internet can be a useful tool when it comes to the health of your family, if you follow a few simple rules.
“If used correctly, seeking health information online can provide users with anonymity and information to increase the possibility for self-care,” she said.
It can also empower users to seek help and increase their understanding of their medical conditions to improve interactions with their GP.
However, if used incorrectly, self-diagnosing through the internet can be bad for your health because it puts you at risk of anxiety and incorrect diagnosis.
You might end up believing you have a life-threatening condition when it might actually be harmless, or you might dismiss a condition as non-threatening when it actually deserves urgent medical attention.
To remedy this, Healthdirect created a Symptom Checker that guides users through a set of easy questions to help them understand symptoms and provide advice on what to do, and when to do it.
Instead of providing a diagnosis, the Symptom Checker advises users what to do next and provides information for the patient to give their treating physician – should they need one.
You may be advised to ‘see GP within three days’, to manage the condition at home, or to call an ambulance.
“Even with all the positive outcomes that the internet offers, searching for specific information can cause many difficulties and disadvantages in relation to the reliability and quality of health websites,” says Dr Luckraj.
Healthdirect has been created to give people easy access to trusted advice in 15 languages, with information on everything from medications to surgical procedures, and additional functions including the Service Finder to help people locate providers and book appointments.
Dr Luckraj said while Healthdirect is Australia’s trusted source for health information, when people wanted to look further afield, there were some common mistakes that could be avoided:
Problem: Wrong keyword or phrase selection
The accuracy of the results you get while searching for medical information online varies based on your search query. If your keyword or medical phrase is not exact, you may be directed to unnecessary or irrelevant topics.
✅Solution: Keep it simple, but specific.
It’s better to search using the basic keywords of your symptoms – rather than put in the ‘worst-case scenario’ which can give you biased results.
Use a medical term if you know it – for example, instead of ‘tummy ache’ search for ‘abdominal pain’ – this way you are more likely to get authenticated results from medical websites.
Good keyword selection is as much about excluding the irrelevant as it is about including the relevant. Being as specific as possible will yield the best results. Since no single search tool will supply all your needs, use at least two or three different tools regularly.
Problem: Relying on a single source for information
People tend to draw conclusions after reading one link. Even if you find a website that gives a reasonable explanation of your symptoms,
it’s worth reading through several others to balance the information.
✅Solution: Find more sources.
Refer to at least five to seven websites before you draw a conclusion. Even if you find a website that gives a reasonable explanation of your symptoms, it’s worth reading through several other websites to corroborate the information.
Problem: Not authenticating the source
While some information is provided by reputable authorities, others are marketed by unscrupulous people wanting to draw traffic, using click bait to lure unsuspecting online consumers.
✅Solution: Do your due diligence.
Make sure to read about the source and research behind the information. Get to know the website or the source by clicking on ‘About Us’ and reading the ‘reviews’ section.
Always seek and refer to the government or health association-approved sources, such as Healthdirect, where information is collected and updated through reliable sources with the credentials to back up their capabilities.