The Pros and Cons of Health Websites

A lot of health information online is biased and inaccurate. Before you rely on a symptom checker, learn more about the pros and cons of medical websites.

Most Americans search the Internet for health-related information, and a third of them attempt to self-diagnose their symptoms based on what they read online. Thankfully, there are many reliable digital sources for accurate, up-to-date medical information. These sites can help you research your medical conditions, understand possible treatment plans, and help you make educated decisions about your care. However, there’s also a lot of biased, inaccurate, and dangerous misinformation on the Internet. Before you rely on a symptom checker or medical website, make sure you assess its credibility. Even then, always follow up with your primary care provider to receive an accurate diagnosis.

Pro: Health Websites Can Help You Identify and Understand Your Medical Condition

Knowledge is power. Most of us rely on the Internet and mobile health apps for basic information about our medical conditions. Reliable online medical sources provide general, easily understandable information about symptoms, treatment options, and common outcomes. When used properly, your online research can help you proactively identify a health problem, treat it over-the-counter, and empower you to make good health-related decisions. 

However, you should always consider online health information as just the first step in your treatment plan. A web search can save you money if over-the-counter treatments are successful. However, if your symptoms do not resolve quickly, you should contact your physician, and always seek immediate medical attention in an emergency.

Pro: Online Health Forums Offer Emotional Support 

Many people with chronic illnesses benefit from online support groups, which can be especially beneficial to people with “invisible” conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Your friends and family might not understand your daily struggle, because you don’t exhibit obvious physical symptoms. Speaking with people who share your experience can provide comfort and help you cope with your symptoms. These groups can also keep you up-to-date on clinical trials, new treatment options, and other information about your condition.

Con: Nothing Beats Personalized Advice and Treatment From Your Doctor

While you can help identify possible medical conditions by researching your symptoms online, your doctors (and agencies such as the Social Security Administration) will never base your treatment plan or eligibility for disability assistance on a self-diagnosis. When you treat with a medical professional, he or she bases your diagnoses and treatment plans on:

  • Your reported symptoms
  • Objective clinical findings (such as information from MRI’s, x-rays, and clinical examinations)
  • Available medical research and guidelines
  • Knowledge about your medical history and lifestyle

While medical artificial intelligence is rapidly developing and improving, it cannot replicate the skill of your doctor.

Computer scientists are working on complex neural networks that can identify and diagnose medical conditions, but most patients don’t have access to this advanced technology ─ at least, not yet. Instead, most of us type our generalized symptoms into an online symptom checker. A 2016 study found that symptom-checking websites and apps are accurate about 34% of the time. The same study shows that doctors, given the same information, properly diagnosed the condition 72% of the time.

Unfortunately, sometimes physicians are too busy to answer your questions and concerns on the spot. They obviously care about your health and wellbeing, but they are constantly on the go attempting to meet with all their patients in a timely, compassionate, and polite fashion. Therefore, it can be difficult to balance your desire for information and assurance with the doctor’s need to see multiple patients and run an efficient medical practice. If you need more time with your doctor, you might want to:

  • Schedule a longer appointment and notify your doctor in advance that you have a lot of questions.
  • Ask your doctor if you can message him or her with additional questions. Many modern medical practices let you communicate with your doctor via email or an online portal. 
  • Ask your doctor if there are classes, support groups, or other resources that can help you get accurate, up-to-date information about your condition.
  • Ask for a patient advocate.

And, if nothing seems to work, consider changing physicians. Sometimes, a doctor and a patient simply aren’t a good fit. 

Con: Online Health Research Can Lead to Unnecessary Anxiety

If you search terms like “nausea,” “fatigue,” “abdominal pain,” and “sore joints,” you’ll find a wide variety of possible diagnoses, from minor issues to life-threatening conditions. When you use an online symptom checker, you might struggle ruling out these differential diagnoses —leading to increased stress, fear, and anxiety. Unfortunately, there is a well-recognized connection between anxiety and pain. Your increased anxiety might worsen your pain and other symptoms. 

It’s easy to assume the worst when you check your symptoms online, but don’t panic if your symptoms align with a serious condition. Instead, seek appropriate medical care. Your doctor can help you sort through your symptoms, identify your condition, and properly treat it. And since laypeople are only able to achieve a 34% accuracy rate when using online symptom checkers, chances are good that you’re perfectly healthy. 

Con: It Can Be Hard to Identify “Fake News” 

The Internet is teeming with health information, but a lot of it is inaccurate, outdated, and biased. There are a wide variety of health sources online, including:

  • Alternative or holistic medicine advocates
  • Drug and biomedical companies
  • Hospital and medical groups
  • Government health agencies
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Professional organizations
  • Research institutions

Not all these sources carry the same weight and credibility. Unfortunately, while Americans are increasingly concerned about “fake news,” they sometimes can’t identify inaccurate health information. 

Before you rely on a health website, you should consider:

  • Is the website run by an identified health expert, such as a government agency or hospital group?
  • Who wrote the article and what are his or her qualifications?
  • Is the article or website selling a product or service?
  • Are the website’s claims supported by peer-reviewed or clinical research?
  • Does the website offer unsupported claims or anecdotal evidence?
  • When was the article written? (Medical research changes quickly, so the article might be outdated.)
  • Does the website have an editorial board or peer review system?
  • Do the article’s claims seem too good to be true?

Typically, information from sites like MedlinePlus and is reliable. However, even some well-regarded sources, such as the Cleveland Clinic, have been criticized for publishing unsupported medical claims. When in doubt, you should always discuss your concerns with your doctors and other medical providers.

Canopy Health Aims to Educate and Empower our Customers

At Canopy Health, we recognize that our clients need and value high-quality information and medical care. Canopy Health is dedicated to educating our customers about medical developments and resources in our community. And, our network of nearly 5,000 Bay Area medical providers delivers patient-focused care to our members across 8 Bay Area counties. Contact us for more information about our services.


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