We’re all guilty of consulting Google for our symptoms when we are sick. But could the information we find on the internet actually be bad for us? Dr Nicola Davies looks at the rise in popularity of e-health in Ireland.
It’s 5am in the morning and your eight-month-old is screaming. 20 years ago, you might have made a call to your local paediatric or emergency service. Today, you’re more likely to log on to the internet and look up the symptoms yourself. We are entering an era of ‘e-health,’ where as many as 80 per cent of internet users seek health information online.
Stop Googling your symptoms
“Do not just go to Google or Wikipedia,” cautions American paediatrician Dr Exe Wexler. “Anyone can create a ‘health’ or ‘parenting’ website, but the advice given may not be from a real expert.” Instead, she recommends that parents talk to doctors ahead of time and get a list of trusted sites that can provide reliable information when needed.
If you can’t resist typing your child’s symptoms, or your own, into your favourite search engine, then at least evaluate the results carefully. Dr Wexler says that it’s important to check that information is backed up by cited sources, such as books or medical journals with recent publication dates. “Anything without a source is probably made up,” she warns.
Identify trusted sites
You can find sites that are full of reliable information, but how can you identify those sites from the less reliable sources? Reliable UK websites will display the Information Standard quality mark, which was established by the Department of Health to help people make informed choices regarding healthcare and treatment. In Ireland, the sign of a trusted website is one supported by the Health Service Executive, such as Healthlink, or one that adheres to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation, such as Irishhealth.com.
The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) are taking action to ensure access to safe and reliable health information, including online information. HIQA recommends that you ask the following questions when considering medical advice or health information presented online:
- Is the information reviewed and updated regularly?
- Does this site claim that advice given here can replace my doctor?
- Is the information unbiased and support by appropriate research and data?
- Has a clinical expert, whose credentials I can verify independently, approved this information?
- Is this site trying to sell me a specific product?
- Is this site asking me to pay for a diagnosis made online and sent
Avoid commercial sites
As a general rule, you should always exercise extreme caution when considering health information from commercial sites. If the goal of a site is to sell you a particular product, then the information provided will be biased towards that product.
It’s also important to cross-check the information you find online by looking at more than one source. If you’re unable to confirm information, this is a warning sign that something may not be right.
Don’t try to replace your doctor
The most dangerous thing you can do with online health information, whether it be for yourself or your child, is to start or stop a medication based on what you read on a website. “Always check with your own doctor before starting or stopping any medical treatment,” says Dr Wexler. If you’re not comfortable enough asking your doctor questions, then it may be time to seek out a new practitioner.
Online privacy and security
When Googling for health information, be wary of entering personal on websites. If a website asks for personal health information, consider why they need it, especially if you’re only looking for very general information about a condition.
If you have concerns about a particular site, show it to your doctor before you divulge information. Your personal information could be used to engage in identity theft, or you could be charged for phony medical services.
In addition, if you participate in online health forums, where parents come together to discuss various health concerns, be careful to shield any personally identifying information. Remember you don’t know who is reading your posts.
You can find plenty of useful, accurate health information online. Just be sure to brush up on your internet safety first!