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Can the Internet Replace Your Doctor?

When our two-year-old woke up a few weeks ago with a blazing fever at 3 a.m., my husband and I debated heading to the nearest ER. Instead, I took a deep breath, logged onto the Internet and typed “toddler, fever, 104.6.” In less than half a second, Google spit out 239 results.

After wading through chat rooms, discussion boards and forums, I found a few well-known healthcare Web sites that agreed a simple pain reliever/fever reducer, temperature check and follow-up call to our pediatrician in the morning would do the trick. No all-nighter in the ER. I give that Web experience a big thumbs up.

We’ve all done it. Whether it’s sparked by simple pains, mysterious symptoms or the desperation of a terminal illness, anyone with a computer has surfed the Web to see what diagnoses and treatments the cyber-experts conjure up. Whether it’s the best course of action is debatable. I outlined my online experience for Dr. Wilfred Lee, a staff physician with Island Coast Pediatrics. He told me fevers put parents in a panic, as they worry about seizures and brain damage. Consulting the Internet in this instance was harmless, he says. “It’s fine as a general guide. You plug in some symptoms, and you get some suggestions.”

The Web can be an asset in educating patients, helping them understand conditions and treatments, but it can also be an obstacle, physicians say. Inaccurate information, symptoms taken out of context and self-diagnoses can mislead patients, delay treatment and put patients in danger. “Where the problem comes in is with individuals who put too much credence and rely too much on the Internet as a substitute for good medical care,” says Dr. Jerold Goldstein, a partner in the Foot and Ankle Group of Lee County. “For serious medical problems that have life or death ramifications, you’d prefer that people seek medical advice as quick as possible.”

Use common sense and follow a few guidelines in turning to the Internet for medical purposes:


1. Don’t rely on the Web in severe or life-threatening situations. There’s a reason why most medical information Web sites have disclaimers. Using the Internet to research foot pain, a stress fracture or some other minor complaint might be helpful, but if a diabetic decides to consult the Web instead of a physician about wounds, redness or swelling, they’re putting themselves in harm’s way, says Goldstein. “Many of those conditions can be, if not life-threatening, limb-threatening.”


2. Consider the source. It is virtually impossible to calculate how many health-related Web sites exist, and choosing among them can be daunting. Nowadays, almost every medical practice, hospital, drug-maker and medical journal has its own site, and most have their own agendas, which might not include providing balanced, accurate information about your condition. A tip: Read the “About Us” section to find out how a Web site is administered. Those that have oversight of a medical board that reviews content for accuracy are often more reliable. Fort Myers psychologist Robert Silver found online quizzes that claim to determine whether you’re bipolar—a serious mental health condition—just by answering a few general questions. In most instances, he finds these ploys on commercial sites that steer you toward purchasing products.


3. Don’t believe everything you read. There are no gatekeepers in cyberspace. Absolutely anyone can put up a page and start sharing. And they do. Chat rooms, discussion boards and forums are a way to find out about other people’s experiences, but they can be minefields, says Silver. He believes these social Web sites can be counterproductive, if not deceptively dangerous. Some people end up sharing their ignorance and bad advice on such social-networking health sites, and while it’s natural to want to learn as much as possible about a medical condition, he says people also hear what they want to hear, sometimes favoring a Web diagnosis over their own doctor’s advice.


4. Remember that a little information can be dangerous. People who self-diagnose from information they get online often have an incomplete understanding of the condition. What they learn might scare them, or it might make them too complacent. Similarly, researching prescriptions can put patients into panic mode. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs are common in Goldstein’s practice, but when he opts for a prescription-strength form, he sometimes gets a strong reaction from cyber-speculators. “People come to you saying they won’t take the medication because it’s going to kill them,” he says. What they didn’t get from their online research is that he simply prescribed a longer-lasting version of ibuprofen.

5. Use online information as a supplement.
Double-checking a doctor’s diagnosis is a common practice. After a meal made Naples realtor Kim Levitan violently ill last year, sending her to the emergency room, she checked webmd.com, which confirmed the diagnosis. “I looked up food poisoning and found all my symptoms and compared it against the flu, which did not,” she says.

Goldstein believes the Internet is best used as a conversation-starter between patient and physician. “Arm yourself with knowledge so you can be a partner with your doctor,” he says. There’s nothing wrong with visiting health Web sites—as long as you remember that your doctor is the one tasked with monitoring your condition. 


10 Top Medical Web Sites

The following medical information Web sites are compiled from several sources, including The Wall Street Journal and the Net Top 20. Local physicians who reviewed them agreed that they are top resources.


1. WebMD: Continuously reviewed for accuracy and timeliness, WebMD brings together medical expertise and journalism. An independent medical review board, with MDs who specialize in nutrition, weight control, heartburn and epilepsy, monitors content. www.webmd.com


2. Everyday Health: After merging in October with Revolution Health, this has become one of the more popular healthcare sites. A network of health-related Web sites, it provides information, advice, forums and a variety of tools, such an online glucose tracker. www.everydayhealth.com


3. HealthCentral: The Health Central Network is sort of a clearinghouse for medical information. Its sites combine medically reviewed original content from doctors, researchers, expert patients and other authorities. www.healthcentral.com


4. Health A to Z: Created by healthcare professionals, Health A to Z provides an assortment of health-management tools, interactive features and information. www.healthatoz.com


5. CDC Health Topics A to Z: Online resource from the U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control. www.cdc.gov/health/diseases.htm


6. The Merck Manual: An online version of the established medical journal, enhanced by audio and video content. www.merck.com/pubs/mmanual


7. Medicine Online: Covers a wide body of medical topics for consumers, including women’s and men’s health, and offers products and services to consumers as well as doctors and other healthcare professionals. www.medicineonline.com


8. Mayo Clinic: Administered by the nonprofit medical center, the Web site provides tools to help manage your health. www.mayohealth.org


9. Healthline: A search platform that offers extensive resources for medical and health-related information, including a visual directory of drugs and their interactions. www.healthline.com


10. Yahoo! Health: Provides news, advice, products and information about a variety of health and lifestyle topics. www.health.yahoo.com

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