Focus on: Health Online

“Mum! I’ve got spots on my tummy.” Those dreadful words that have most parents reaching for the Calpol whilst simultaneously phoning the doctor and cancelling the rest of the day. But is there an alternative to rushing to the GP Surgery? More of us are turning to the internet for answers when we are unwell. 77% of people have looked up some form of health or social care information in the past 12 months* But how safe is this? Are we making good use of available resources or are we walking a shaky line of incorrect self diagnosis and hypocondria? We sent Jessica Dante to find out.

I admit it. I do enjoy a good symptom spotting session. I’ll do it for myself, my husband and my children. Even my friends don’t escape, when I quiz them for ten minutes, tap into Google and rather smugly inform their horrified faces they almost certainly have Meniere’s Disease.

The internet has an almost unlimited amount of health information and advice. But how do we know what is safe and reliable? Flexing my fingers and with the spirit of investigation I sat down at my PC to find out. Half an hour later, I’d convinced myself I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Irritable Bowels and wasalmost certainly pregnant. This, while rather startling at the time, was later found to be factually inaccurate. As, in fact, I was perfectly healthy.

So where do we begin in this minefield? Typing the symptoms or the name of an illness in your favourite search engine will undoubtedly bring up a string of health websites. Some of these will be trying to sell us products and services while offering a smattering of information. Others will be pitched at health professionals and we might be fortunate to understand one word in five.

Hidden among the reams of available websites are some little gems. NHS Direct, offers an impressive and easy to navigate website. With an online symptomchecker and advice of when we really need to see the Doctor. It also offers a basic A-Z of conditions and treatment as well as a ‘Health Encyclopedia’.

For information and advice about specific conditions, well known sites such as the British Heart Foundation, and Cancer Research UK are the place to start.

The internet also offers an excellent opportunity to connect with people who may be going through the same health issues as you. A friend of mine has a child with Cystic Fibrosis and the contacts she has made through The Cystic Fibrosis Trust, have been a lifeline of support to her.

The internet is a resource that we all use almost daily. It is a natural progression for us to use this medium for our health issues too. Most of us are sensible enough not to trust things we read on Wikipedia but how do we know what we can rely upon? 3 out of 4 people find it hard to know which health and social care information to trust*.

The Department of Health set up a scheme ‘The Information Standard’ for just this purpose. All websites displaying the Information Standard mark have been examined carefully for reliability and accuracy.

So will I be giving up one of my favourite pass times of symptom spotting? Not in the least! The online environment is convenient and easy to access for health information.We can access patient guides that our G.P.’s would never have time to explain in practice.

Amateur self diagnosis ought to be discouraged. The risks are simply too high, not to mention annoying your loved ones and friends! The internet should perhaps rather be seen as a complimentary information service. As always, if in doubt, seek professional clinical advice.


*Department of Health TNS Omnibus Survey, 2007