Web brings medical info home
May 27, 2006
When Holly VanDenAmeele felt pain in her chest, was light-headed and had shortness of breath, she went to a doctor. When the doctor told her she had mitral valve prolapse, she went to the Internet.
She found out she had a condition in which the blood flow to her heart would momentarily reverse.
"When I looked it up I thought, ‘Oh my God," but in reality I just have to take a pill and I’m fine.
More and more people are turning to the Web for medical information. Sites such as http://www.webmd.com, http://www.cdc.org and http://www.medinfo.com dole out information, advice, and diagnosis, but usually contain a disclaimer referring the reader to a doctor.
Eric Smart, an emergency room physician in Salt Lake City, said that, generally, the easy-access information has been a positive thing.
"The more patients know about their conditions, their symptoms or their treatment it generally leads to better patients," Smart said. "They’ve taken a proactive approach to health care so generally they’re going to be a more compliant patient. And generally when they know more of what’s going on it facilitates their care, and their actions as well."
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Smart also said that lack of one-on-one time with patients gives rise to the need of an information source as abundant and as easy to access as the Web.
"Especially in the emergency department, we’d like to be able to take more time with patient education, but we just don’t have time," he said. "The Web is their chance to learn more."
But, much like with VanDenAmeele, not every patient has a good experience.
"Some people come in saying, ‘I looked up my symptoms and I think I have meningitis,’" Smart said. "Sometimes they’re right and others times they’re wrong. The problem comes when patients self-diagnose."
Many problems arise when patients use a search engine and read everything they can about their symptoms, regardless of the source. Then, feeling they know what’s best, they don’t see a doctor.
"I think you need to be careful about self-treating," Smart said. "The type of folks who will look up symptoms online and thinking they can deal with it themselves rather than seek medical care."
When "symptoms diagnosis" is searched in a search engine, many sites appear. With the first two sites that come up on http://www.ask.com, someone entering "headache" as a symptom would be diagnosed as having one or more of a multitude of problems. These diagnoses include meningitis, genital herpes, Lyme disease, syphilis, influenza, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, polio, epidural abscess and snakebite. Recommended actions included a call to 911, a trip to the hospital and a lumbar puncture, but omitted Aspirin and rest.
Smart, though, remains positive.
"Some sites probably aren’t as good or as reputable as others, but I think there is a number of places to start," he said. "I don’t know of any sites specifically that I wouldn’t recommend, but just don’t go to ‘Joe’s Medical Information Site’ and then think you’re going to die when you see the search results."
Although Smart said they don’t usually give Web site recommendations, he said it’s because it just doesn’t come up. He said when patients ask he recommends sites run by the government, such as the site run by the Centers for Disease Control. He also said specialty sites, such as the specialty group of emergency physicians, or sites hosted by medical schools such as Harvard are good as well.
"WebMD also seems to be a pretty good site as far as looking up symptoms," he said. "I think the former Surgeon General has a site, too."
Michelle Mcgregor, a licensed practical nurse at Park City Urgent Care and Family Practice, said it’s not the Web site’s fault that patients sometimes overreact.
"Generally, I think the information out there is excellent," she said. "But it is people who have high anxiety and will jump to conclusions who have the problems. It’s just always good to see a doctor first."
But when sick, Mcgregor said people need to do a review of any changes in their lifestyle.
"If they see a rash, they need to do an inventory did I change laundry detergent? What’s different? And just don’t jump to conclusions."