At its best the internet can save lives by facilitating prompt diagnosis and treatment, but at its worst it can ruin them by misdirecting people to the wrong type of care, or worrying them to death by inducing “cyberchondria”.
The unfounded escalation of concerns about common syptoms based on review of search results online.
To get around this many doctors discourage the use of search engines such as Google and direct their patients to specific sites that can be trusted.
Searching for health information has ranked as one of the most common reasons for surfing the internet since the earliest days of the worldwide web and it is a trend that shows no sign of abating. The UK’s most popular health website — NHS Choices — has had more than a billion hits since it was launched in 2007, and surveys suggest around a third of us are now “online diagnosers”, using the web to try to work out what is wrong with our own health, or that of someone we know.
The internet, though, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it provides access in seconds to the sort of information that even doctors would have struggled to find just a decade or so ago. On the other, it is also a fertile breeding ground for quacks, charlatans and conspiracy theorists, and it can be surprisingly difficult to tell who is who in the murky ether.
The NHS Choices website is vast but if you want the facts on the latest “breakthrough” then head straight for the Behind the Headlines section (nhs.uk/news) where the team takes a critical look at the health stories making the news.
One in three of us will be killed by a heart attack or stroke and this site is dedicated to predicting when that is likely to be. Download the free Heart Risk app at JBS3 — it uses your data (such as blood pressure, height, weight and family history) to work out your odds of having a stroke or heart attack over the next decade. And how long you are likely to live until you run into trouble (it guesstimates that I will be 78 before I have my first stroke or heart attack).
Cancer is another of the big killers and one of the first things my patients do when they have been given bad news is go online to learn more about their disease, their odds of beating it, and to ensure that they are being offered the best treatment. And there is no better place to do this than at Cancer Research UK. I particularly like their find-a-trial service at cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/trials/ which directs you to leading research into new therapies for different cancers.
This website is based on the principle that a problem shared is a problem halved. If you, or someone you care for, has recently been diagnosed with anything from mental health problems to cancers of the breast or testicle and you want to hear the first-hand experiences of others then give this excellent site a try.
NHS Choices may be the most popular destination for UK health surfers but for good basic information on medical conditions and treatments I prefer this site. And, if you want to see what your doctor should know about your condition, then check out the professional reference part of the website. Men may prefer the blokeish approach of the Men’s Health Forum at malehealth.co.uk.
This is the biggest medicines information website in the world with 22 million visitors every month. It is aimed at the American market, and some of the brand names are different, but it is the most comprehensive website of its type. It even has a pill identification wizard that can tell you what something is, based on its colour, shape and imprinted numbers or letters. The closest UK equivalent is emc.medicines.org.uk.
While on the subject of drugs, if you would like more information about illegal drugs, including what to do if you are a parent and concerned about broaching the subject with your children, this is where to come.
Blogging is all the rage these days and there are some fantastic medical blogs out there. Glasgow GP and occasional Timescontributor Dr Margaret McCartney is one of the most respected UK bloggers and her musings give a refreshing insight into what doctors really think about health issues at the top of the NHS and political agenda. It will restore your faith in the profession.
Between them all these sites should cater to the needs of most people surfing the net for health information but I am always on the lookout for new ones to recommend, so please share your experiences — good or bad. Particularly if you have tried one of the burgeoning number of online consultation services where you pay to email or Skype a doctor.