Power to the Patient: Finding health information online

This piece was co-authored by Aly Keller.

Use the Internet. Stay Healthy.

Ever used Google to figure out whether or not you have a medical condition? You’re not alone. In fact, one in three American adults have gone online to get a diagnosis for a condition either they or someone else may have.

Getting information about your health isn’t a bad idea. Studies have found that it can actually help you stay healthy, because you’re more likely to take preventative measures. Also, you’ll have better health care experiences, since you’ll be more activated in the doctor’s office and able to productively discuss your symptoms, possible diagnoses, and medications with your doctor. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that you may even help your doctor think of something he or she hadn’t considered.

A survey in England found that 64% of young adults wouldn’t feel comfortable challenging their doctor if they thought they were incorrectly diagnosed. Don’t let this be you! By coming to the doctor more prepared, you’ll be able to work together to stay healthier.

Of course, website searching is only productive when you’re getting valuable information (and not, as so many of us tend to do, diagnosing yourself with scary and unlikely diseases). Tools and websites for getting better health information are everywhere, but people aren’t always using them. In fact, 77% of people still start their search for health info at an engine like Google or Yahoo.

Next time you go to the internet to diagnose your health, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Don’t start with Google! Go straight to informative and reliable sources that will provide accurate information. Some options for you:
    • Medline Plus: A carefully selected collection of articles, images, videos and more that provides extensive information on drugs and conditions. Protip: Feel more comfortable with Spanish? Here’s Medline in Espanol.
    • MLA’s Top Health Sites: The Medical Library Association put together a list of credible resources that are very useful when researching your health. Turn to one of these for reliable information.
  2. Use a translator or glossary. Understanding your health means understanding the weird terminology. If you’re unfamiliar with a term, don’t hesitate to look it up--especially in the doctor’s office. Knowledge is power, people! Here are two great tools you can use:
  3. Try a clinical diagnosis support tool. In simple terms, use an app or website specifically designed to help with accurate medical diagnoses. By collecting useful information, you’ll be more informed when you see the doctor, and that means more productive appointments.
    • Isabel: This symptom checker uses advanced technology to help you make sense of the symptoms you’re experiencing. One study found this tool to be 96% accurate! We suggest downloading the app on your phone.
    • FamilyDoctor.org: Another useful symptom checker with flowcharts that walk you through potential symptoms. It also tells you how serious the diagnosis may be and how quickly you should seek medical attention.
  4. Assess the quality of the information you’re reading. This step sounds straightforward, but it’s really important. Whenever you’re reading materials about your health, make sure the information is accurate. The MLA’s consumer guide lists the following steps to evaluating content:
    • Check who is sponsoring the website. Sites will be more reliable if the sponsors are dependable. Look for government agencies (.gov), educational institutions (.edu), and research societies (.org).
    • See when the site was last updated. Since health information is constantly updated, so should websites. Up-to-date information is more accurate.
    • Determine whether the information is factual or opinion-based. Reliable information will be substantiated with references to professional literature and other websites.
  5. Go in with questions. If an evaluation of your health leads you to the doctor’s office, go in prepared! You and your doctor are a team. Managing your health is not a one way effort. Asking questions and talking about the information you’ve read can be a very useful way to understand your health, your medications, the plan for your care, and the decisions you make together about a plan of action. Not sure which questions to ask? This guide, with 10 simple but useful questions, is a great place to start.

Important Things to Keep in Mind:

  • Navigating online health information can be tricky because the quality is inconsistent.
  • Information you read may be out of date, especially with things like new drug warnings.
  • Don’t let a website become a substitute for definitive medical advice. Focus instead on letting it empower your communication with your doctor, and make sure to always get the help you need.