News Column

Patients Go Online for Diagnostics

Feb 18, 2013

Tom Kisken

Medical Tech

When trying to figure out whether their fever means flu or labor-like back pain stems from kidney stones, women seek online medical answers more than men do, according to a new study that also suggests young adults, college graduates and people with money turn to health care cyberspace.

The national survey from the Pew Research Center suggests 35 percent of U.S. adults have gone online to diagnose themselves. It shows people with health insurance pursue online diagnoses more than the uninsured and that white non-Hispanics seek out health advice more than Hispanics and African-Americans.

The study doesn't address whether parents type their symptoms into a keyboard more than single adults. But mention online diagnoses to the women with toddlers and babies in their laps outside a Starbucks in Camarillo, and one of them shows her iPhone.

"I actually have the app," said Vanessa Sotelo, 26, of Ventura, referring to WebMD. She last went online to figure out whether her kids had head colds or the flu. Usually, she takes her children to a doctor anyway, but her phone gives her instant data.

"I want to know what's going on with them," she said.

The survey, based on interviews with 3,014 people, suggests certain populations want online diagnoses more.

But as far as Dr. John Dingilian can tell, everyone does it. He worries reliance on a universe of health care sites can make patients conclude they have cancer when they don't. Even worse, it can reassure them that they don't need medical care when they do.

The Simi Valley doctor dismissed the suggestion that relying on Dr. Google isn't all that different from talking to your mother about your symptoms.

"I don't think your mom is going to tell you that your stomach pain is colon cancer," he said.

In the survey, 46 percent of those who sought online answers decided they needed to go to the doctor, while 38 percent decided they could take care of themselves. Of those who sought care, 18 percent said the real doctor told them the Internet was wrong.

Richard Bennett, a construction supervisor from Moorpark, fessed up to his doctor after searching for online answers to symptoms that made him think he might have colon cancer.

"He said not to do that," Bennett said with a laugh.

Using online sites to learn about treatment for heart conditions or other medical information is good, said Dr. Vishva Dev, a Thousand Oaks cardiologist. Diagnosing yourself or providing your own treatment, as some patients do, is bad.

The concerns are all legitimate. But Dingilian offered another reason many doctors aren't particularly fond of Dr. Google.

"They don't like it because people have a stack of papers that you now have to explain away," he said. "It's a time cruncher."

People don't turn only to the Internet. Six of 10 people in the survey said they received health information from family or friends.

"There's Dr. Google and Dr. Mom as the de facto second opinions in the United States," said Susannah Fox, co-author of the report. "The Internet is a supplement, just like reading a book about health is a supplement or talking to your neighbor."

Some people who search online for health information said they get peace of mind and a way to judge the severity of health issues. But the problem with some health care sites is they provide worst-case scenarios, said Courtney Whitley, a 29-year-old Ventura College student who wants to become a nurse.

"Sometimes it doesn't ease your mind," she said.

Tell health consumers that many doctors are wary of cyber health advice, and they speculate the providers worry about losing business. But Dev said people who make health decisions based on Dr. Google often aren't ending their health journey.

"They will need us in a worse way," he said. "That's the trouble."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c) 2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

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