What Should I do? Looking For Medical Advice on The Internet

Emma is deeply concerned about her recent diagnosis. Apparently some sort of cerebral hemorrhage. “Just last month I was diagnosed with a bleeding brain.” She reports in a recent comment here on this blog. She continues, “My symptoms are a burning sensation. The worst is in the morning when I wake up, but it keeps on going all through the day.”

She ends with the heartbreaking plea, “Is there any hope for me?”

I get about one or two of these types of comments each month. They are all equally distressing. Joleen is worried about her positive Babinski sign. (Even though the post explains that it is a normal finding.) Raymond wants to know what he should do about his difficulty breathing. (He’s already under the care of a physician.) Colleen is very worried about her sons constricted pupils and would like an email immediately. (He is under the care of multiple physicians.)

There are surprising similarities in most of these comments. First, they rarely describe the problem with enough detail for the reader to adequately offer an educated opinion. In most cases, the question authors can’t possibly provide the needed details. The questions are written by untrained laypersons who don’t know what physical assessments and historical information would be necessary for a trained medical practitioner to offer an informed and useful opinion.

They also tend to imply that the opinion of an unknown EMS blogger and his audience, absent any true physical assessment, would somehow be more authoritative than the advice of a trained physician in a clinical setting. There is also the problem of what type of resolution the questioner is really looking for beyond, “Go see a doctor and get a proper evaluation and treatment plan.”

I’m never quite sure how to respond to these, sometimes haunting, medical questions. They come from the internet-void, from anonymous patients, who sometimes sound desperate in their search for answers. As a medical professional, I hate to ignore them, but I also never feel like I am in a position to offer any real help. Is any medical provider who is willing to dole out medical advice without properly examining the patient worth the advice they are giving?

With that question in mind, I offer you The EMT Spot guide to finding good medical advice on the internet. If you feel like you have a medical condition or issue that is best solved by surfing the internet, please follow these guidelines.

1) Don’t use the internet for any emergent medical condition. If this issue is a medical emergency, turn off the internet and dial 911. Yes, right now. That means you, Mr. Late-Night-Chest-Pain-Medical-Advice-Looker-Upper. Your chest pain is an emergency. Call for help. Same thing goes for you Mrs. I-Can’t-Move-My-Left-Arm-Anymore. Take your good hand off the mouse and pick up the phone. You are being ridiculous. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call 911 and ask a real live paramedic. We do that stuff all the time.

2) Do use the internet to educate yourself of the medical conditions that you are concerned about. The internet is a great resource to learn more about just about every medical condition you can imagine. In fact, the more rare and unique your condition is, the more likely that there are web-sites and groups designed to help you learn more and feel connected to a community of people who are going through the same thing.

One word of warning. Once you have found the information about your particular medical issue, resist the urge to figure out how to contact the person who posted the information and start asking them questions. Waiting for someone else to respond to your highly specific questions is an incredibly inefficient way to educate yourself and learn more about your condition. Keep your hand on the mouse. Stay off the keyboard. Click, read, learn and repeat.

The more you learn, the more questions you will likely develop. Keep reading. Many of your old questions will be answered. Many new questions will develop. Don’t be too concerned about the unanswered questions. There will be a time to ask them. It just isn’t right now.

3) Don’t try to consult with anonymous medical personnel in chat rooms, forums or blogs. (Forget about e-mail too.) You don’t know any of these people. Get your information from valid, trusted sources like Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine, the National Immunization Program, The CDC, and WebMD. There are also sites that provide real physicians with specialty knowledge and places to determine your complaint specific medical options like iTriage.

With all of these resources available to help you, the idea of bringing your important medical condition to an online blog comment string is like looking for good steak at your local ice skating rink. (Someone around here must know how to cook a steak, right?)

4) Do call your local ask-a-nurse. There are numerous local and national nurse hotlines that will answer all of your questions and give you an honest opinion right now. If you need medical information urgently, don’t bother with the internet. (Unless you are using it to look up the number of your local ask-a-nurse.) Conversing with a rel person is infinitely more useful than typing questions online.

In a few short minutes, a medical provider can have a conversation with you and ask all of the appropriate questions. They can then direct you to appropriate resources. Do take note, the advice will probably involve following up with a real medical provider in person. At some point you need to be prepared to see a human caregiver. Such is the nature of medicine.

5) Do be aware of “cyberchondria”. Recent research into peoples search engine habits suggests that people are more likely to progress from benign to more serious medical inquiries the longer they search for information. For instance, an initial search for “headache remedies” is more likely to progress to searches for information on “brain tumors” and “radiation therapy” instead of searches for “caffeine related headaches” or “tension headaches”.

Also keep in mind that your desperate search for an anonymous person online to provide you with some previously unknown gem of medical information may also just be a manifestation of your own hypochondria. Ask yourself if you’re really looking for valid information or if you are just searching for validation for your self-inflated medical concerns. If multiple physicians have given you the same assessment, that assessment is likely correct.

If you are still searching for validation, you need to look for a higher medical authority than the physicians that you have already consulted. Find yourself a top-rated specialist in the field and seek their opinion. Their opinion will be infinitely more useful than anything you will encounter in an internet comment string.

The internet is a fantastic tool to find medical information. If you are earnestly seeking to learn more about your medical condition and explore different treatment options, you can find some amazing stuff in cyberspace. You may find out about clinical trials that you can participate in and new, unique treatments that even your physician hasn’t heard about yet. But you need to be diligent about where you seek your information.

Your health is important enough that you should only use online resources of the highest caliber. I wish you luck in your search.

Comments

  1. Because the admin of this site is working, no question very soon it will be well-known, due to its quality contents.

  2. I am going to be going in for surgery and I was wondering what your thoughts were on Dequervains tenovitis not sure if I spelled the last part correctly. I have had roughly 1 8 rounds of physical therapy, cortizone shot, ion therapy through physical therapy it might also be called ultrasound therapy. This all happened at work and yes it is a workers comp situation. My injury was from a fall.

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