Health In The Time Of Internet (Don’t Google Your Symptoms)

We live in an era of bountiful health information. A sore throat no longer warrants a visit to the doctor or a hefty co-pay. Simply Google your symptoms! It’s easy to see the problem here. Are we in the internet age becoming more educated thanks to information accessibility? Or are we slowly seeping into a misinformed, undereducated self-diagnosing disaster?

Amid health movements pedaling homeopathic oils and anti-vaccine sentiment, evaluating the role of the internet in public health is more pertinent than ever. But fear not: if you’re interested in expanding your medical knowledge accurately, or want a reliable source to order medications, dependable websites are still out there.

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The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Most people know by now that not all information on the Web is accurate, yet we still think highly of our knowledge after a Wikipedia binge. Scientists call this the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s when the incompetent overestimate their knowledge. People can be so undereducated in something they think they know, they can’t understand just how much they don’t know.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has been blamed for the anti-vax movement – a significant population of parents who believe vaccination causes, among other conspiracies. The effect is serious; unvaccinated children endanger immunocompromised individuals who can’t get vaccinated, and the World Health Organization believes lack of vaccinations is to blame for the resurgence of measles.

Cyberchondria, The New Hysteria

The Internet is accessible, available 24/7, and attractive. Click-bait-y, sensational headlines like “You Won’t BELIEVE This One Trick for a Flatter Belly!” can be irresistible. Because we’ve gotten into the habit of not requiring a library trip just to answer a question, our patience has thinned. We want answers, and we want them now. This is why we are tempted to Google our symptoms, often to uncover horrifying, anxiety-inducing causes. This hand-wringing malady has been coined “cyberchondria.”

For example, popular health site WebMD offers a tool called the Symptom Checker. A user can simply enter their personal information and symptoms into it, and out bounces a list of possible conditions they may have. Entering the  single symptom “sore throat” along with basic details like age and sex gave a long list of possible conditions, from the common cold to mycoplasma pneumonia, that were all “fair” matches.

Illnesses often have overlapping symptoms, symptoms that can sound as vague and universal as “sore throat,” “headache,” and “fatigue.” To correctly distinguish a diagnosis requires skill. There’s a reason why physicians spend many gruelling years earning their qualifications. In addition to their in-depth knowledge of human biology, physicians also use sophisticated tools like laboratory equipment and X-rays to diagnose illnesses. You can’t simply match your symptoms to a list and conclude you have that illness. If you did, you may be suffering from dozens of things, and getting a doctor’s appointment to confirm or deny hypothetical, highly unlikely diseases is a time-waster doctors are sick and tired of.

Yet, many people still fall for this trap, discovering and then becoming convinced that they have some terrifying, life-threatening illness. Sometimes, even after visiting a doctor, they are unsatisfied. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes into play: the patient believes that because they have done so much research, they must know more than their doctor, and their doctor must be wrong.

So What’s A Good Source If You Want To Learn?

It’s difficult to come up with ways to mitigate this phenomenon. People are curious and want to learn things – to educate themselves, even – yet few have the patience or ability to sit through a peer-reviewed paper.

Used cautiously, internet health information can be a helpful resource. For example, if you didn’t know about sexually-transmitted infections, engaged in unprotected sex, and then learned about the existence of STIs, this can prompt you to get tested. For general information, government websites like the CDC and MedlinePlus are credible sources that offer up-to-date information easily understood by the average layperson. Look for the “.gov” in the URL; this means the website is run by a U.S. governmental body. UptoDate is also a good resource popular with medical professionals and students, and it offers patient-oriented articles as well. Outside of the US, the National Health Service in the UK and healthdirect in Australia are quality English-language sites too.

If you are looking for affordable prescription medications online, avoid places that claim prescriptions are not necessary. Legitimate online services, such as the international and Canadian pharmacy referral service Rx Connected, will always require prescriptions. Rx Connected sources only from vetted pharmacies and fulfillment centers that have met strict standards set by their respective governing bodies. It even welcomes physicians to phone in and ask questions.

If you truly want to further educate yourself on health, it may be best to pick up a Biology 101 textbook, or even enroll in a class. As mentioned before, there’s a reason why medical school is so viciously long. From cells to organs, the human body is a complex machine. We’ve been studying it for the entirety of human civilization, and there is still so much we don’t know.

If you are interested in even more lifestyle-related articles and information from us here at Bit Rebels then we have a lot to choose from.

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