By Lauren Keegan
Sydney-based psychologist and freelance health writer. She has worked in the public mental health sector in Australia for ten years. You can find her at laurenkeeganwriter.com
When you have a niggling health concern, who do you instinctively turn to for advice? It may be a strange lump, an itchy rash, or a persistent headache, that you want to know how to fix. If you’re like most people nowadays, you probably consult “Dr Google.”
There has been much concern about whether self-diagnosis via the internet is a help or hindrance. Does it lead to more anxiety, or do people feel reassured by accessible online health information? A study found that one in three American adults use the internet to self-diagnose or learn more about a health concern.
The survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, reported 46% of people who searched online for a health matter led them to believe they needed medical attention, while 38% believed it was something they could take care of themselves. In terms of diagnostic accuracy, 41% of the internet searchers say a medical professional confirmed their suspected diagnosis compared to 18% who consulted a medical professional overruled their self-diagnosis. Additionally, there were 35% of participants who did not seek medical advice following an internet search.
The study also looked more broadly at how people search for information, with eight in ten people initiating their health search through an internet search engine.
“When asked to think about the last time they hunted for health or medical information, 77% of online health seekers say they began at a search engine such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Another 13% say they began at a site that specializes in health information, like WebMD. Just 2% say they started their research at a more general site like Wikipedia and an additional 1% say they started at a social network site like Facebook,” the authors’ report.
In another study examining health information seeking in the digital age, they identified common characteristics of internet searchers. “Being younger, more educated, and having a higher SES (socioeconomic status) were predictors of internet use for health information seeking,” the authors’ explained.
On the other hand, a report on adolescent health seekers, lobby for “digital health literacy to find, understand and appraise health information from electronic sources to maintain health.” In this study, they assert young people are proficient in technologies and yet they have difficulties identifying reliable online health information and find information written by medical professionals to be confusing.
So, how do you find a trusted, reputable source?
Here are five things to look for online:
In reality, we know that many people search for health concerns online. Internet-based health information can be useful in quickly identifying whether a health issue requires further medical follow-up. It’s also important to know that it’s very possible your self-diagnosis is incorrect and the only way to receive an accurate diagnosis is to seek medical treatment. When looking for health information online, ensure you access reputable sources and follow up with a health professional if you remain confused or concerned about your symptoms.
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