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Column: Google, Md.

Feb. 21, 2012

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In this age of rising medical costs and more focus on medical malpractice, many people are unable to afford medical treatment or not interested in seeking it. College students are especially vulnerable and unable to find adequate treatment, perhaps because they have a lower income than the average population. In the face of this, students usually suggest to each other it is better to simply Google your symptoms and self-medicate until you feel better than it is to go to see a doctor.

This is actually a pretty bad idea, and would probably end up doing more harm than good. Although hitting up the doctor's office might not seem much better if you base your decision on co-pay, if you even have it, or fears of malpractice, it is still safer than attempting to self-medicate. You shouldn't replace a doctor with a checklist you found on Reddit.

Some people might, however, and one of the most popular means of self-medicating is to use WebMD. Although it is pretty useful if you are just trying to determine whether your symptoms require medical attention, it is not a replacement for a physical visit to the doctor. Doctors are trained to look at the broader picture. Although some doctors might simply run through a symptoms checklist, a good doctor will notice subtleties that can lead to the discovery of the root cause of a problem. By being able to study your entire medical record, it is possible for a doctor to determine correlation between past and present symptoms.

Other sites offering alternative treatments or self-medication are for the most part unbelievably terrible and unreliable. One of the worst sites for this is the Yahoo! Answers Health section. For some reason, a frightening number of people seem to turn to this site with serious medical questions despite the fact it is crawling with Internet trolls and gives really terrible advice.

Sites like Yahoo! Answers, that provide a forum for nonprofessionals to solicit and provide information to one another, really display the worst of the Internet (outside of Facebook). Forums that allow for some type of anonymity usually have users that intentionally ask facetious questions, and the same people asking these types of questions are usually answering them with unhelpful information for laughs. Outside of forums, there is still concern about the validity of diagnostic material when presented by serious and somewhat non-anonymous sources.

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine stated YouTube also served as a particularly bad resource for providing information concerning illness and treatment. The study found that the top viewed videos involving psychogenic disorders listed symptoms that were poor or outright misleading, like videos about Parkinson’s disease. According to another study done by the Cleveland Clinical Foundation, in many cases, pharmaceutical companies posted videos that were disguised as original user content but were actually ads for their medical products.

For the most part, most medical information you find online is unreliable. WebMD is useful only to the extent that it can give you a better idea of whether your symptoms are causes for concern, but it isn't always accurate for diagnosing a particular illness or disease. If you really are paranoid about the quality of medical care you are receiving, or have heard bad things about a practitioner, go to another one. Whatever doctor you choose, he or she will still probably provide you more educated advice than “remoserjr107” or “BIG DADDY COOL” will on Yahoo! Answers.

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