Using Online Medical Information

This guide is intended to help individuals to navigate online medical resources, interpret medical information, and responsibly apply their findings to solve medical issues.

By conducting independent health research, you can learn more about conditions that impact you and your loved ones, while increasing the likelihood that you find positive health outcomes.

If you are unsure about the reliability of a particular source, first see this related guide to Finding Credible Medical Information Online.

Remain Levelheaded

Researching medical topics can be a stressful experience, particularly when the issue being investigated may be of significant consequence to you or a loved one. Under such circumstances, it is important to try to process the information in a calm, deliberate, and rational manner.

  • Make a conscious effort to start your research with the intention of not drawing conclusions or diagnosing yourself with a specific condition. Online resources tend to be broad and generalized, as a matter of necessity. When faced with this generalized information, many people assume they have the most serious condition or that they are facing the worst possible outcome, which in turn causes additional unnecessary emotional stress. Try to use online medical resources to expand your knowledge about a topic and formulate questions to ask your doctor.
  • Online symptom checkers can be helpful for identifying possible diagnoses. While diagnostic algorithms are constantly improving, they are still unable to draw upon an individual’s unique medical history or the nuances of their condition presentation. According to a 2015 study published in the journal of the British Medical Association, symptom checkers averaged only a 34% success rate in presenting a correct diagnosis as the top result.
  • The field of medicine is continuously advancing, and new information is being discovered at a rapid pace. The availability of numerous new studies and treatment options can be both encouraging and overwhelming. Websites like Cochrane Library and UpToDate can be useful for finding summaries of the latest research.

Be Studious

Medicine is a complex and rapidly evolving field. Medical professionals undertake years of training and research in order to develop expertise within their particular specialties. To become an informed patient, you will also need to devote some time to the pursuit of medical knowledge.

  • Always consult multiple sources. Never rely on a single source of information.
  • Take notes, bookmark websites, and print articles that you can use as future references when consulting with medical professionals. It may be helpful to bring physical copies of your notes with you when you visit your doctor’s office.
  • Many medical terms are rooted in Greek and Latin. These words may be unfamiliar and intimidating, which can lead to confusion about the relative severity of the conditions they describe. For instance, “horripilation” and “aphthous ulcer,” sound far more frightening than the corresponding colloquial terms “goose bumps” and “canker sore.” If you encounter an unfamiliar term, take a moment to look it up in a dictionary, rather than attempting to guess its meaning.
  • Remain skeptical. Understand that the findings of any single study are subject to additional review and follow-up investigations. When reading a patient testimonial, recognize that treatments need to be individualized. Just because a particular treatment was effective for one person, does not automatically mean that it will work for you.

Be Proactive

After you conduct your research, ask yourself, did your findings address your concerns? Then, take a moment to consider how you can actually use the information you have found to improve your health. Responsibly acting on the information you find is often just as important as obtaining it in the first place.

  • With many conditions, treatment options and their efficacy can be substantially impacted by the timing of detection. Early stage diagnoses often produce better outcomes for patients. When questioning your state of well-being, always consult a medical professional sooner rather than later.
  • After you have reviewed online medical resources, write down any questions that you may have and bring them to your next doctor’s appointment. Online medical information is not a substitute for a medical evaluation by an actual healthcare provider.
  • Heed warnings. While you should not jump to conclusions or panic, if a symptom checker directs you to seek medical attention, you should seek medical attention.
  • If you read about a new treatment or drug, feel free to bring it to your doctor’s attention. Given the rapid pace of medical research, informed patients may end up learning new information about their own condition or potential treatment options before their doctor does.

Being well informed allows you to take a more proactive role in managing your own health. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, try to reduce your expectations prior to beginning your research. Anticipate reading about serious and unpleasant outcomes and prepare yourself to remain calm. Recognize that medical information found online is most impactful when discussed with a licensed medical professional. And remember, never make changes to your own treatment regimen without first consulting with a medical professional.

Contributors

Molly Sardella, MA, MEd