The Dangers Of Online Self-Diagnosis

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The Internet is an endless source of information and, for many of us, our first go-to for just about everything we want to know. It is also a tempting tool for medical self-diagnosis, but one you should be careful of.

For example: You wake up in the middle of the night with a pain in the lower left side of your stomach. You get up and walk around, but it doesn’t go away. So you search the internet for “left-side stomach pain.” You find out it could be constipation, or diverticulitis, or kidney stones, or a bladder infection, or gas — or cancer. Your mind goes right to the cancer. Oh no, what if it’s pancreatic cancer? And then you can’t sleep, so you keep surfing.

“The wealth of medical information we have at our fingertips can be empowering, but we need to be really choosy about the sources we are using—especially when searching topics like cancer, stroke and heart attack,” says radiation oncologist Sean Vance, M.D.

He cautions that if you are experiencing what could be a medical emergency, you should call 9-1-1 immediately. And for non-emergencies, remember that no matter how reliable the source, it is never a substitute for medical advice from your doctor.

If you can’t resist searching your symptoms online (and you are definitely not alone), you may find the following tips helpful:

  • Be wary of going straight to the sources at the top of your search results. These are usually paid advertisements and may not necessarily be your best choice.
  • Begin with your hospital or health system’s website to learn about conditions and diseases they treat, medical tests that might be needed for a diagnosis, treatment options available, and more.
  • Checking multiple sources is usually a wise move. Visit other trusted healthcare sites, such as Mayo Clinic or FamilyDoctor.org, for general health information.
  • Avoid sites with community-sourced content, such as Wikipedia, as the information provided may not be properly vetted by qualified professionals or may be out of date.
  • Look for government-sponsored health resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Choose information from respected, national non-for-profit organizations like the American Diabetes Association, the Alzheimer’s Association or the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Remember that user comments in forums, review sites and on social media often skew negative; if you do read them, look for thoughtful responses and ignore the scary stories and angry rants.
  • Consider the commercial interest or potential biases of any web site you are visiting. Do they accept outside advertising and, if so, how might that influence their content? Are they directly trying to sell you a product (such as a web site sponsored by a pharmaceutical company or dietary supplement maker)? This doesn’t necessarily mean that the information they provide is not reliable or credible, just that they need to be viewed with a critical lens.

The Benefits of Online Health Information

While talking with a health care professional is always the best way to find out about your symptoms, there are times when online resources can be valuable for finding information about a health condition.

“Don’t use the Internet to self-diagnose. You are likely to cause yourself unnecessary stress, or possibly minimize something that could be serious. But, once you have a professional diagnosis, you can use trusted sites to learn more about your condition,” says Dr. Vance.

Community forums or online support groups, such as the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network or Stupid Cancer (for teens and young adults with cancer), can provide relationship-building and information-sharing opportunities. They can be an ongoing source of support from others who share your experience with a particular health condition.

Taking care to find the right online resources will bring you the most benefit.


To schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a doctor, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). If you’re in the Jackson area or south central Michigan, visit henryfordallegiance.com or call 1-888-862-DOCS.

Dr. Sean Vance sees patients at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute’s Paul Tejada Center for Radiation Oncology in Jackson, Mich. He formerly served as Chief Resident, Department of Radiation Oncology, Henry Ford Health System. Areas of clinical interest and research include precision medicine, prostate cancer and gynecological cancers.

Categories: FeelWell

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