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Illness and the Internet: Browser beware!

illnessThe Internet has given each of us great power, and as we all know from watching the Spider-Man movies, with great power comes great responsibility.

I remember the day my youngest daughter became aware of the sweeping power of web search engines to help her find answers to pretty much any question she might have. “Dad,” she told me, her eyes wide open in wonder, “Google is like God.”

It may seem that way at times, because there’s a ton of information out there in cyberspace. But armed with the power to search, we also have the responsibility to make sure the information we’re receiving – and often then pass along to others – comes from a credible source.

A perfect example is when we’re looking for information about a medical condition.

There are more websites offering medical advice than you can shake a thermometer at, and not all of that information is reliable, to put it kindly. And we tend to go with the worst scenario possible out of all that information-gathering, and that can be a scary thing.

We Google “stiff neck” and become convinced we have spinal meningitis. We Bing “sore elbow” and are sure we’re having a heart attack. And don’t even ask about searching for “constipation” causes – some of the results are downright terrifying.

So what are some guidelines for obtaining accurate information on the Internet? We’ve gathered a few:

— Know your sources. If you’re looking for a credible source of medical information, you’re going to want to stay with web sites that know something about medicine.

WebMD has become a trusted source for checking symptoms over the years, and many hospitals, universities and medical centers offer detailed information on a variety of illnesses.

One of our favorites is the Mayo Clinic, a top medical instition offering reliable information.

Another great site for checking medical symptoms is SymCat, which has assembled thousands of patient records and built a fine database for public use.

Just make sure you know who your source is, and proceed with caution.

– Talk with others with the same problem. The Internet is a gathering place for pretty much anything you can think of, from canning pickles to sled-dog racing.

The same is true of patients, who gather in patient forums and bulletin boards to talk about treatments that have helped the, doctors they recommend and medications they are taking.

Seek out others who have the same condition as you, particularly when it’s a chronic disease you’re going to have for the rest of your life. There’s comfort there.

— Make a doctor’s appointment. There’s no real substitute for talking with a licensed medical professional. But that doesn’t mean all of that Internet research has gone to waste.

More and more doctors have been accustomed to, and even comfortable with, patients who arrive with a handful of printouts containing information from the Internet.

Don’t be shy about taking the information you’ve found along with you on your doctor’s appointment. It just might be an education for both of you.

Because while Google isn’t really like God, as my daughter found out in her later years, neither is your doctor.

And information is power, even when it comes with responsibility.

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