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The Dangers of Diagnosing Online

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Here I am on the internet writing about the dangers of diagnosing yourself or your children via information on the web. The internet is a valuable resource, and I cannot remember what I used to do before I could “Google” something to get a quick answer. You don’t need a phone book anymore or zip code directory or even a map, as it is all available online. But, when it comes to medicine there is still nothing as effective and reliable as seeing a doctor in person and having a physical exam.

The hazards of using the Internet as your own medical textbook can be great. The Internet is a resource, and not a doctor. Just like Sir William Osler taught when he published The Principles and Practice of Medicine in 1892, the physician must examine the patient. The best doctors still take a complete history and do a good physical exam!!

I often tell parents and patients to use the Internet as an adjunct once the diagnosis has been made. The Internet may be a great resource to provide further information about a specific problem or disease. But when searching online you want to make sure that you are using a resource that has good research and is reputable and reliable.

Many postings on the web may be anecdotal rather than factual and there are no requirements on the web to post information. In other words, you don’t have to go to medical school and get a degree to “publish” on the Internet.

I sometimes see a worried parent in my office, whose child may have awakened during the night with a “tummy ache”. Despite the fact that the child had already gone back to sleep, the parents stayed up searching the Internet for “abdominal pain”.

Due to their Internet “research” the parents have convinced themselves that their child must have appendicitis, and by morning they are convinced that testing is warranted (of course they read every blog about “missed appendicitis”).

The child may have had no other symptoms than that “tummy ache”, slept the rest of the night, and awakened feeling just fine, ate breakfast and are ready for their day. But, they appear in my office, many times 8 – 12 hours later and want to run for further tests and are planning for imminent surgery.

All of this anxiety provoked by Internet research. Somehow, the most common symptoms have been overlooked during the parent’s panic. The child feels fine now, looks great and is ready to go back to playing! But the poor parents have scared themselves into wanting CAT scans and ultrasounds to “make sure” nothing is missed.

A good review of the history and physical exam is often all that is needed in the case of the “mystery midnight tummy ache”. The only thing that came of that internet research is that the parent had 12 hours of a tummy ache worrying about obscure diagnoses rather than heading back to bed themselves.

So, beware of using the Internet for research without knowing what you are researching. Always use reputable web sites and check out the credentials of those who are giving information. Beware of people or companies that provide information that are not in the mainstream and who do not provide valid scientific research to back their claims for a “cure”. When in doubt, ask your own doctor, I am sure they have an opinion about the pros and cons of online diagnosing.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow. How much do you use the internet when it comes to a diagnosis? Let me know and leave your comment below.

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One Response to “The Dangers of Diagnosing Online”

  1. Jennifer L says:

    Your post will make my husband, who’s also a pediatrician, very happy. He’s always moaning over people who call and argue with him, saying things, “But I read on the Internet….!”

    Step away from Dr. Google, folks.

    (Also, he refuses to prescribe antibiotics over the phone.)

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