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Beware of Dr Google
7:00am Saturday 26th May 2012 in Health
As a survey shows one in four British women have misdiagnosed a health problem on the internet, doctors discuss the disadvantages and benefits of consulting Dr Google.
By Lisa Salmon If you develop a mystery ache or pain, it's often easier to reach for the computer keyboard to check on Google than to get an appointment with a real GP.
As many as 83% of people in the UK surf the net for information about their health problems before going to see their doctor.
But while asking Dr Google may sometimes provide a correct diagnosis, real doctors say incorrect information, misreading websites and people drawing illogical conclusions means that patients often get the wrong diagnosis online.
A new study by feminine health brand Balance Activ has found that one in four British women has misdiagnosed themselves on the internet.
Dr Laurence Buckman, chairman of the British Medical Association's GPs Committee, warns: "If you just Google something, you're going to get a range of responses, some of which will be rubbish.
"Googling symptoms can be disastrous - if you feel something in your chest you'll think you're having a heart attack, and you're probably not.
"Sometimes people come up with quite strange diagnostic leaps which aren't logical, and occasionally I look on a site with a patient and they've simply misread it."
The study of 1,000 women revealed that the symptoms most likely to prompt self-diagnosis are vague ones, including sleeping problems, headaches and depression.
Muscle pain, stomach cramps and fatigue also lead women to consult Dr Google, and a fifth of them have at some time suspected they had a serious disease - the most common false alarm being breast cancer.
After breast cancer the illnesses that women most often misdiagnose themselves with are other cancers, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, depression and diabetes.
Consult your GP There are both benefits and problems with looking up symptoms on the internet, explains Dr Buckman - and some of it's connected to when you do your searching.
"I think most doctors are quite pleased when people look things up on the internet after they've seen them," he says.
"But what they're not pleased about is when a patient comes with a sheaf of papers, having already 'worked out' what's wrong with them before they've seen a doctor.
"Then the consultation isn't about their illness, but about what they've found on the internet and you end up with the doctor trying to prove that the internet's wrong, which can be extremely time-consuming."
In a nutshell, it's only worth looking up symptoms online if you know your problem's minor, or you've already been diagnosed by a doctor and want more information.
But symptoms that bother you and might be important should be discussed with a real doctor, he emphasises. If you can't get a quick appointment, ask for a telephone consultation rather than just self-diagnosing on the internet.
Dr Buckman points out that if there was something wrong with your car, you'd take it to a garage rather than diagnosing and fixing it yourself, and stresses: "It's the same with your health.
"A GP needs you to tell him your symptoms carefully, and together you'll work out what it might be, rather than starting off with an internet diagnosis which is very likely to be wrong.
"You can find the worst-case scenario when looking up symptoms on the internet. But that doesn't mean it's right."
Health anxiety Most people assume that almost any symptom equals cancer, the disease they're most scared of, Dr Buckman points out.
"There are some people who are already anxious, and the internet fuels that, so looking on it is probably a mistake for them.
"They come in very distressed because they think they've got cancer, when in fact they haven't - most symptoms do not equal cancer.
"But if you read the internet, a headache means you've got a brain tumour."
However, he assures that most brain tumours don't start with a headache, as other symptoms usually present first.
"It's very hard to reassure people when they've read it in black and white on the internet. They think it must be true and we have to persuade them that's not the case."
That persuasion can mean blood tests, X-rays and scans which may not have been necessary if the patient wasn't so worried by what they had read online.
Bad medicine The Balance Activ study also found that searching for symptoms online and then self-medicating has led a tenth of the country's women to endure unpleasant side-effects as a result of misdiagnosis.
Pharmacist Leyla Hannbeck, spokesperson for the National Pharmacy Association, says Googling symptoms and treatment can be dangerous, particularly when people on health chat forums recommend certain medications.
"You read people's comments about particular symptoms, and they often say take this or that, which is dangerous because these people probably don't know anything about medicines," she points out.
"We're quite concerned about it - it's one thing to Google your symptoms, but quite another to start treating them."
She stresses that even if someone does Google their symptoms, any treatment should be discussed with a healthcare professional.
People can go to a pharmacy without an appointment, describe their symptoms to the pharmacist - in a consultation room if preferred - and the pharmacist will either advise on the correct treatment or suggest a patient sees a doctor if necessary.
"If you speak to a pharmacist, you're talking to someone very knowledgeable," says Hannbeck.
"Pharmacies are very accessible - you just need to walk into one to get the information you need, rather than going on the internet trying to work out what your condition is.
"It's very worrying when people start playing with their health."
She adds that some people self-diagnose and then buy medication from illegitimate websites without having a consultation with a doctor. But she warns that some of the medications they sell may be counterfeit, and every pharmacy should be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Society.
Trusted sites If people want to look up their symptoms, Dr Buckman advises them to only use trusted sites run by recognised bodies such as the NHS, or charities like the British Heart Foundation.
And beware of commercial, foreign sites, he warns.
"Otherwise you could end up with some weirdo clinic in America which puts boot polish on your knee and says it cures multiple sclerosis or whatever your problem is.
"They're usually selling that particular make of boot polish, and that really isn't helpful."
He says reliable sites include: :: NHS Direct - designed to provide health advice and reassurance, featuring a symptom check facility (www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk).
:: Patient UK - features a searchable database of information leaflets on health and disease (www.patient.co.uk).
:: The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) - an NHS agency which provides clinical guidelines and information on a number of conditions (www.nice.org.uk).
:: The Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) - develops clinical practice guidelines for the NHS in Scotland and provides information about reputable health websites (www.sign.ac.uk).
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