How reliable is medical information found online?
The internet has become a daily accessory in people’s lives and is one of the biggest sources of information. In the case of health care, it has become the first responder, the first source patients refer to in order to gain knowledge about their own conditions before they visit a health care or medical professional. This has made the public feel more empowered and involved in the knowledge they have about their own bodies; it can change the way they view professional consultations and treatments ascribed to them. This article considers the ups and downs of such endeavours and how it has affected lives, with examples and taking the recent pandemic into account.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Nowadays patients do not rely solely on their doctors for diagnosis or treatment of problems they have. They conduct their own research, come to their own conclusions, and discover the issues they believe they want to be addressed. Many times, even before they have been officially diagnosed, the patients would have an idea of what they are dealing with, based on symptoms and online research they have previously conducted. This often stems from the fact that each doctor’s visit costs money and it is not feasible to be able to book an appointment for every small query, concern or health development that occurs. It leads to more relevant questions being asked by the patients but can also lead to distrust in the doctor’s abilities if they do not believe the diagnosis of the professional and instead trust medical information they found online and believe to be true in their case. This kind of self-diagnosis increases the dangers posed to one’s health, especially if one decides to self-administer remedies or treatments seen online that turn out to be false and harmful instead.
The biggest upside of medical information available online is that when immediate treatment or first aid is required it can prove extremely helpful. For example, if one sustains a burn, one can instantly look up ways to alleviate the pain and modest home remedies. In case of mild first-degree burns, there may be no need to see a professional, and in many such instances, online medical information tends to play a positive role where people can easily treat themselves and administer first aid.
It saves time and provides insight into an individual’s own health and even lowers the burden on hospitals and clinics which are already overflowing. In India, there are widespread herbal or homemade remedies available for people to try as they wish that have been ‘verified’ by generations of people. Such measures do help as in a sense this is accurate information.
Other upsides of this are that in rural areas or for people who may face higher health risks if they visit the hospital, it is a more beneficial option. It also needs to be taken into account that one can also discover online spaces and forums of people diagnosed with similar issues and become emotional support, it greatly helps a person if they have others who share their experience.
There are numerous threads online on Twitter, especially by Americans that provide medical information, this not only helps those who cannot afford to visit hospitals or do not have health insurance but also in case of ill-timed emergencies that require instant action to be taken.
If we talk of reliable online sites that provide lifesaving medical information or at least accurate medical advice, we can take the example of the Twitter account @/CDCgov – the account of the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention strives hard to create awareness about vaccines and immunity safety.
Many times, professional doctors also share their thought and advice on social media in an attempt to reach more people, this particular phenomenon has seen a rise since the start of Covid as people could not meet doctors face-to-face as the risk of infection, people would share not just information about the course of the virus but also tips on how to take preventive measures and tips and tricks to go about daily life in a more Covid-safe manner.
Social media is a rising platform for sharing medical information, especially TikTok and Instagram among the youth and WhatsApp and Facebook for more middle-aged people. These make it difficult to identify ‘fake news’ especially if it is information that has been forwarded too many times or cannot be traced back to a reliable source. This sort of self-research leads to a heightened state of anxiety and can often lead to patients stressing out more than they need to and inadvertently causing greater harm to their health, not just biologically but also mentally.
During the beginning of the pandemic, many so-called ‘cures and ‘remedies’ for Covid floated around the internet. In India, many people thought that drinking ‘gomutra’ or cow’s piss could cure Covid and as the information had stemmed from the religious belief that cows are scared and so their excrement would also be, many actually tried this. Needless to say, this ‘cure’ held no truth and in no way was medically beneficial.
In America, the then President, Donald Trump, publicly said that scientists should explore the possibility of injecting insignificant amounts of disinfectants into Covid patients, a statement that shocked the world and alarmed healthcare professionals at an international level who promptly took the initiative to warn people not to do so. Such a statement coming from the president of one of the biggest countries in the world could not be taken lightly. Even though, the very next day, Trump clarified that he only meant it sarcastically, during the announcement his demeanour was not joking or sarcastic at all, which spurred on many American citizens to actually consider his statement seriously and put them at risk of poisoning themselves should they decide to proceed with what he suggested.
CONCLUSION – WHAT AND WHO TO TRUST?
Often preliminary information available online tends to be true, for example, many sites hold accurate information about basic injuries and the correct first aid application for them. However, in the case of larger health concerns, it is extremely dangerous if people depend on online sources of information – especially if they cannot be verified or is not by verified professionals. For example, if one has PCOS, a common disorder found in women that affects ovulation and periods, they look up self-administrative measures to help either alleviate pain or regulate menstruation cycles. There are many sites that could offer help from other women who share their own experiences and success and failures with homemade remedies; but a glaring overview that takes place here is that these remedies may turn out to be harmful to other individuals who have other underlying health issues, like allergies. This means that the risk of such treatment turning its head on the patient is highly possible. And at the same time, chances of misdiagnosis are higher as people may assume they have one affiliation but, it may be something else. If they go forward with the same assumption, they end up risking their lives in a much worse way. It is also possible that someone else’s symptoms are different from what they experience and so they fail to consider the possibility of having that health risk.
In order to avoid such issues, it is best that for major health concerns patients should visit proper health care professionals and not rely solely on online information. For general issues like small cuts or pains, it is possible to refer to online medical information as it tends to be accurate, there are widespread and well-known remedies that are almost treated as general knowledge. Although these work in most instances, it is nevertheless best to have a follow-up with some professional who can provide assurance.
As for any medical information or advice found on online websites, it is best to consult multiple websites rather than relying on just one, even if it is for a single medical issue. Next is to make sure the information comes from a reliable source and not just verbal say so, if they cannot back up their facts, then they should not be trusted. Along similar lines, if they disrespect or simply disregard other sources of knowledge instead of talking about them in a respectful and clarifying manner then they should be treated as unreliable as well. One needs to make sure that the information they are accessing is also up-to-date – do not try using remedies or medicines from an article that is ten years old, it is more than likely that the information given has already been proven false or a better alternative has been found. And lastly, for complex health problems, the internet should only be a surface accessory that is used to further your knowledge but never relied upon as a true source of knowledge. There is no alternative to proper healthcare from a professional who knows what they are doing and has actual experience in such cases.