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4 Tips for Getting the Most from Dr. Google

Helpful hints for finding reliable medical information online

By Trisha Torrey | September 9, 2014

Whether it’s Dr. Google, Dr. Bing, Dr. Yahoo or any other search engine, the Internet can yield a treasure trove of useful information. You might decipher symptoms that bother you, learn how to avoid a hospital infection, watch the surgery you’re considering, consult with a doctor located on the other side of the world — and anything in between.

The key is to know how to determine whether the information you locate online is trustworthy and credible, because the web is fraught with peril unless you know how to protect yourself.

(MORE: A Privacy Expert's 3 Tips To Protect Yourself Online)

When it comes to health and wellness, bad information can make you sicker or cost you money. Purchasing a sham “miracle” treatment might cost you your savings. Yielding too much personal information to a health site can cost you your identity. Misdiagnosing yourself, especially if you decide not to seek treatment as a result, can cost you your life. 

Remember, anyone can say anything they want to on the web. Even if they’ve published boldfaced lies, they can dress it up to look very official, very professional, very important and, unfortunately, very believable.

Here are some guidelines to help you protect yourself, and to improve the chances you will find information you can rely on:

1. Follow the money. Most websites exist to either make money directly (through sales or advertising) or to promote the products and services a business or individual sells.  

That’s not a bad thing; in fact, the reason the information is free for you to access is because the site serves those other purposes.

The key is to be sure there is a clear line between the information being offered, and the promotion taking place. When articles (called “content”) on a webpage are unrelated to the advertisements you see next to them or linked from them, then the information is less likely to be influenced by the ads or need for promotion. Of course, the less promotional influence on the content, the better.

Sometimes entire websites exist to do nothing but promote one company’s products and services, such as a pharmaceutical or medical device website, or a doctor’s website created to promote his or her practice. The existence (or non-existence) of that clearly drawn line can help you determine how credible its content is.

2. Trust your intuition. As Momma said, “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.” While she probably wasn’t referring to websites those decades ago, her advice most definitely applies.

Unfortunately, we often seek health and medical information when we feel vulnerable. We’re worried, maybe frightened, and we’re hoping we’ll learn something that will make us feel better.

Enter online snake oil salesmen and con artists. They can’t wait to take a chunk of your hard earned savings! And while you may be reading this article while you’re relatively healthy and can’t imagine you could be taken in by these frauds, believe me, when you are vulnerable and afraid, you can.

(MORE: The Medical Bills that Hit Retirees the Hardest)

To avoid the damage that could be done to your health and wallet, always find at least a second, and possibly a third confirming source for any claims you think — or wish — are true. Those additional sources need to be independent of each other. For example, find two different researchers or two published sources that cannot be identified as being collaborative. Those confirmations improve the chances the information you’ve found is credible.

3. Protect your identity. Most of us realize how important it is to protect our financial information online. We even know we need to use difficult-to-decipher passwords. But did you know that most search engines are tracking your every move then selling that data to others to use?

We have yet to discover all the ways our personal information might be used to influence us, or even be used against us, but we can work today to prevent the potential problems we might incur in the future.

Before you begin doing searches for health or medical information, set up a new email address every time you need to register for information. You can do that for free with Gmail, Live Mail, Yahoo, AOL and others. Don’t use your real name or birthdate when you sign up, and then don’t use that email address for anything else. Such an address will provide one level of anonymity.

Another way to search anonymously is to prevent tracking from taking place to begin with. Walk away from Drs. Google, Yahoo and Bing and start hanging out with a search engine that won’t track your online searches. Examples: www.DuckDuckGo.com and www.StartPage.com

(MORE: How Secure Are Your Medical Records?)

4. Discuss your findings with your doctor. So you’ve spent hours on the Internet, searching, reading, linking, confirming, learning… You’ve uncovered something very interesting, something you didn’t know, something your doctor hasn’t mentioned… Now what? 

Important: Don’t jump to any conclusions about your own diagnosis or treatment, especially before you talk to your doctor. Instead, use your findings to prepare for your next appointment. Organize your questions ahead of time so you can have a more cogent and concise conversation.

Then when you see your doctor, ask those questions you prepared, such as, “I read more about this drug you want me to take, and I learned the side effects can be very difficult. Can you tell me more?” or “I know you think I have 'Disease A.' But there are several typical symptoms I don’t have. I think instead it’s possible I have 'Disease B.' Can we discuss the differences and see if it’s worth taking another look?”

There is actually a bonus to this tip, too. That is, you can gauge your doctor’s reaction to determine whether you want to continue seeing him, or if you need to find one who is more collaborative.

There are huge benefits to be derived from investing time in your health and medical information needs and learning all you can through the web. These tips will help ensure the web information you trust is credible and useful.  
 
Trisha Torrey is a patient advocate who works to help improve the relationship between patients and providers. She is the author of You Bet Your Life! The 10 Mistakes Every Patient Makes.