Last week we examined some of the ways that various dubious advisory products and information are marketed online, to people in need of medical support and advice.
Of course buried amongst the rubbish in the search results for popular medical terms might be breakthrough revolutionary new treatment that could change people’s lives. I am the first to accept that the funding of medical and pharmaceutical advice is far from neutral and I am sure many valid cures and research directions get suppressed when the economics dictate it – but the problem we have here is the total lack of evaluation or rigour. Google can’t regulate it and neither can we as consumers. Take the alternative cures and suggestions you will find in the search results pages very much at your own risk
But, let’s assume you manage to make your way through all the pointy red writing, slick video intros, flashing arrows and other dodgy looking sales pages and find some credible medical information… Here is one important thing to bear in mind, before we look at these sources.
The art of diagnosis is based on science, but remains a judgement – which is why you must SEE a trained professional in the end and not rely on online information. Take a random symptom like last week’s ‘headache’ for example, the possible medical causes for this are a very, very long list. An authoritative medical site will list these in order of likelihood, and suggest that the most likely causes of your headache are things like stress, migraines, allergies, hangovers, colds, lack of sleep etc. They will probably advise the safe use of over-the-counter analgesics and waiting for it to stop and leave you in peace.
However, if you keep reading can easily find yourself in a total hypochondriac freak-out state, wondering whether you perhaps have an aneurism, carbon monoxide poisoning, encephalitis or a brain tumour,before you reach the end of the page. They won’t explain the complex statistical modelling that makes it far, far more likely you have a pollen allergy rather than a life-threatening growth or clot, but if they are a proper medical source they do have to list every possible source of the symptom.
(Medical product information leaflets work similarly, incidentally, when listing possible side effects. They start with the most commonly reported, but they have to ultimately list every possible effect – so you can end up with some pretty weird stuff being reported)
Actually with some online symptom checkers, you can pretty much work every single symptom back to the faint possibility of a brain tumour. Brain tumours can cause such an incredible range of primary and secondary symptoms, affecting every part of the mind and body and sensory perception, that you can find it listed as theoretical cause of anything from a tingling toe to a nose-bleed. Should this terrify you? Well of course not because it remains thankfully an extremely rare final diagnosis, and the vast majority of times a far more mundane cause will be indicated. But that is one reason why you should ALWAYS get seen by a trained human being, not diagnose yourself online.
That said, there are some sources of genuine reliable medical and pharmaceutical advice online, that you can use – with the warnings above – to find out more about your medical conditions and medications online.
http://www.patient.co.uk/ is the website of the UK NHS, and provides a great many different kinds of information. In addition to NHS services for those in the right country, there is wellbeing and lifestyle advice, and various programmes and tests you can undertake. There is a symptom checker, and they also index a great deal of patient information leaflets, the kind that are provided with prescription medicine.
This last is particularly useful for expats, if you are provided with an unfamiliar medicine and not certain about the dosage or just want to research and read up about it yourself- you can Google for the English language equivalent generic name, then check out the information on the NHS website (just be very, very careful you are correctly comparing like with like when it comes to dosages and if in any doubt at all check with whoever provided you the medicine)
Http://mayoclinic.org is a not-for-profit medical practice and medical research group based in Rochester, Minnesota, with a very comprehensive catalogue of medical symptoms, diseases and treatments you can search easily for advice.
http://www.webmd.com/ is useful for reading around different areas of health research, in addition to established treatments in production. You can find out about health trials and conferences, backed up by primary research and reference materials, and they also offer a number of communities where you can connect with other patients and professionals in subjects of your special interest, and they verify the credentials and authority of the material they publish.
It is important to remember that despite all my warnings above, medical professionals are human beings and specialists and don’t always get it right, and there are numerous cases where online research has saved lives by correcting a wrong diagnosis or identifying a new avenue of treatment. Do your research with your eyes wide open and your snake oil filters set to max, and be an informed and educated consumer. Tell me how you get on via @Casslar
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, April 18th 2014
©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL