Medical information on the web has pros and cons
Berlin (dpa) - You feel a twinge in your stomach and there is no
obvious explanation. Or maybe, for no apparent reason, you get a
stabbing headache. To whom - or to what - do you turn first?
According to various studies, there is a good chance it is the
"About 65 per cent of respondents now state that they have
recently searched for health content on the internet," said
Marie-Luise Dierks, co-director of the Hanover Patients' University,
an independent education institution at Hanover Medical School in
Germany. Some, though by no means all of them, try to diagnose
Independently researching a health-related matter on the internet
can indeed be useful, said Dierks, who said it is a good way to boost
one's self-reliance and confidence in dealing with illnesses, doctors
and medicine. But she added a caveat: "It's important, however, that
information from the web always be called into question."
Health care professionals are divided on the internet as a source
of medical information.
"There is nothing wrong with informing oneself," said Ursula
Marschall, medical director of Barmer GEK, a German public health
But she said it is dangerous to regard the internet as more
credible than one's doctor. Noting that "patients always have their
own notions about their illness," she said those who did internet
research were at risk of latching onto information that supports
their preconceptions, even if those are completely wrong.
Maria Gropalis, a psychologist at Mainz University's Department of
Psychology, also sees risks. "The danger of misinformation is very
high on the internet. The overabundance of information can be a
problem as well" - particularly for hypochondriacs, she said.
"There's the risk that the internet will intensify existing fears."
A word has even been coined for unfounded anxiety concerning the
state of one's health brought on by visiting medical websites:
"cyberchondria." While Gropalis views the neologism as mainly a vogue
word, she said the phenomenon it described was definitely a modern
variety of hypochondria.
"Hypochondriacs don't imagine their symptoms, but they interpret
them incorrectly," remarked Gropalis, who said the internet was a
dangerous intensifier in this regard. While many people go online to
calm their health fears, she noted, oftentimes the opposite happens.
A web search can quickly turn a common headache due to fatigue or
dehydration into a brain tumour in the mind of the searcher.
Gropalis has an especially low opinion of online discussion
forums, where people often lay out their personal medical history.
She said most participants in such forums have had negative
experiences - long waits for a diagnosis or misdiagnoses, for
instance. "Forums are very often a source of disquiet," she said.
For non-hypochondriacs, surfing the internet in search of possible
reasons for feeling unwell is much less problematic. But independent
research, Marschall warned, can never replace patient-doctor
"This communication, just like the physical examination, is an
extremely important diagnostic tool. You get neither on the
internet," she said, pointing out that doctors make a diagnosis not
only on the basis of acute symptoms. "They take them as a point of
reference, ask questions based on them and look at the patient as a
For people who seek medical information online, Marschall
recommends medical societies' patient guidelines. "They translate
medical jargon into everyday language, and the information is
provided by experts and based on the latest research," she said.
Websites of governmental agencies and public health insurance
companies are reliable sources in the view of Dierks, who advised
people doing health-related research online to always look to see
whether someone is responsible for the content, and if so, who the
person is. She also issued a warning: "I'd be wary of websites where
something is for sale."
Dierks said it was also important how patients dealt with online
information when consulting a doctor. They should use credible web
information to help formulate their questions, not present the doctor
with a pack of computer printouts along with their preconceived
With the right approach, she said, the web-savvy patient will be
better able to understand his or her physician.
Copyright 2012 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH
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