You have a terrible feeling in your chest! You go to your computer and Google "chest pain." Up come hundreds of sites that describe the pain and its possible causes. How do you filter through this wealth of information? How do you know what is accurate? Most importantly, how do you interpret the information you are seeing?The Internet has become the "go-to" resource for so many of us. A 2010 study from the Pew Research Center shows that 80 percent of Internet users look online at some point for health information. However, while the Internet is a rich source of information, it is also a prolific dispenser of misinformation. In some ways, gathering information used to be easier. We went to a library, and consulted familiar and trusted sources of books, journals, or magazines. We looked for familiar experts or writers in a given field. Legitimate journals were subject to expert review before publication. Today, we can access limitless amounts of information online, but much of it is from unfamiliar sources. In fact, the nature of the Internet allows anyone with an opinion or something to sell to have a nearly level playing field with the experts. The result is a World Wide Web filled with fact, fiction, opinions, political commentary and sales pitches. In medicine, my own field of expertise, I've seen two major problems. First of all, information found on the Internet isn't necessarily correct. In order to evaluate a website for accuracy, many of the following questions need to be answered: •Who created the website? Is it a nationally known government, university or medical school? Who is the author and what are their qualifications? Is it a blog created by an individual unknown to you? Who is the publisher and what is the purpose of the site? •How current is the information? When was it posted or last updated? •Is there a bias? Is the language emotional or inflammatory? Does the information represent a single opinion or a range of opinions? Are any underlying assumptions clearly identified? What is the main message of the website? Is there an obvious political or social message being conveyed? •Have you been to this particular website in the past, and was it helpful? Do other sites have similar information, or is the information unique and not supported anywhere else? •Is the information clearly stated? Do the facts as presented support the conclusions? •Is there mention of a specific product or group of products for purchase? I am thrilled when my patients become actively involved in the treatment of their health issues. I believe that it is critical to "own" a problem, and to take active measures to make lifestyle changes and resolve health issues. However, the second major problem that stems from information gathered on the Internet is that even when you find accurate information, the findings need to be interpreted and applied properly to your particular situation. For instance, in the chest pain example above, the cause of the pain might be the heart, bones, muscles, nerves, intestines, lungs...even when the proper data is gathered, knowing how to analyze it accurately, reaching the right conclusions, and deciding what action to take requires experience, education, and wisdom. That is where your trusted family doctor or other health professional comes in. Nonetheless, it's clear that it is far better to learn about your own health issues than to bury your head in the sand. Happy surfing! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: May 12, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 4