• Are you getting your health information from the unregulated world of the internet? (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Has the amount of information online made us all think we're medical experts? Amal Awad muses on how to stay well in an age of digital self-diagnosis.
Amal Awad

25 May 2016 - 12:36 PM  UPDATED 25 May 2016 - 12:36 PM

We’re blessed to live in an age when information is – quite literally – at our fingertips. Smartphones deliver a library of resources that tells us everything from how to get to a destination avoiding tolls, to how to make a killer chicken cacciatore with only four ingredients.

Useful, no doubt. And who isn’t grateful for the ability to look up obscure trivia in seconds, or pay bills online?

But amid the cornucopia of online opportunity there lies a dark and foreboding marsh of information. Not only is the internet one big encyclopaedia created by the global population – making much of its resources unverified, inaccurate or contradictory – we must also contend with a plethora of so-called experts who try to summarise the complex into the simple.

Nowhere is this truer than with medical advice. A simple headache can quickly become a brain tumour, leading to anxiety, paranoia and, well, illness. There’s even a name for it: cyberchondria.

Even Google is on it, reporting that "one in 20 Google searches are for health-related information", though its push for greater accuracy is not exactly going to deter cyberchondriacs.

The internet is flooded with research-based stories, self-appointed experts on health, and food wars. 

Despite the warnings from the medical profession, people persist in consulting Dr Google. They determine a malady based on internet research – a flimsy checklist that can diagnose everything from a case of IBS to cancer.

But you don’t have to be imagining worst-case scenarios for it to still be a troublesome practice. A recent consultation with a doctor showed me just how far off course you can go by investigating symptoms online and listening to family and friends about these symptoms.

As she put it bluntly: “You’re trying so many different fixes now that you don’t even know what’s wrong with you.”

The verdict stung, because she was right. It was difficult to identify where my ailments began and what they actually meant. Was my gut lacking in a particular bacteria? Was I gluten intolerant because I felt a bit bloated after eating a bread roll? Did I have heliobacter pylori, like a friend of mine? I did the breath test, but was it even the right thing to do?

The internet is flooded with research-based stories, self-appointed experts on health, and food wars. Ditch the sugar completely or live large? Even sleep is fiercely debated – sleep early or have segmented sleep? Right side or left side?

Choice is not always a good thing. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing there was a filter, much like the safety ones parents use to stop their kids inadvertently clicking on porn.

It really doesn’t help that in our super-charged superfood era, things we have long eaten without any trouble, like gluten and wheat, take on villainous qualities. Before you know it, you’re aligning your symptoms with food intolerances and, quite possibly, removing something completely innocuous – or perhaps helpful – from your diet.

You’re practically an MD.

It’s not that doctors haven’t warned us about this. It’s perhaps more an issue that there is no way, really, to regulate the wild west of the internet.

We need medical professionals to take an active role in campaigning against self-diagnosis.

If you’re not a medical expert, eight hours trawling the internet does not make you one.

Moreover, given a push towards self-care by the government – meaning pharmacists, for example, will take a larger role in assisting patients who come in to buy prescriptions, reducing the pressure on doctors – guidance on where to look and who to trust is ever more important.

Without support and a diagnosis from an actual medical professional, and an assurance that the website you’re using is reputable and up-to-date, you could diagnose yourself with a condition you don’t have and find solutions with medications and supplements you don’t need.

If you’re not a medical expert, eight hours trawling the internet does not make you one. So when you're trying to figure out what's wrong with you, don't head straight to the internet. In the same way you shouldn’t ask a friend who’s an IT specialist what’s causing your stomach cramps, don’t trust the faceless universe of the interwebs.

Visit your GP, and if you’re not convinced, get a second opinion. You may well just discover that you have a slow gut, rather than a gluten-intolerant one.

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