It’s the middle of the night. Your baby’s sick. You’re sick with worry.
Ever thought of Googling his symptoms for some free medical advice or a second opinion?
Many people use the Internet for health-related information, and used correctly it’s a great resource. But how reliable or accurate is a search engine without medical guidance?
A group of British researchers found that health information on the Internet ranges from poor to excellent, depending on the topic and the resource. They Googled UK-based websites on five common pediatric issues in which the best practice is pretty clear, and found that only about 200 of 500 sites offered correct information. The results of their study were published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
The five search topics chosen for the study were "MMR autism" (current practice: there’s no association between the vaccine and autism), "HIV breastfeeding" (current practice: HIV-positive moms are advised not to breastfeed), "mastitis breastfeeding" (current practice: a mom with mastitis should breastfeed), "baby sleeping position" (current practice: a baby should be put to sleep on his back) and "green vomit"(current practice: if baby vomits green, go see a doctor).
Their analysis showed that governmental sites were accurate every time. Educational sites, companies, interest groups and individual’s sites performed rather well, and were accurate around 80 percent of the time. News sites did poorly (they had a 55 percent “correct” rate), and no sponsored site gave correct advice.
The authors conclude:
“Healthcare professionals should continue to strive to be the main source of information for patients but we should be aware that most will continue to use the internet to gather information. We suggest that in addition to verbal and written information, patients and parents should be signposted to NHS (National Health Service), governmental or other preapproved websites”
Google has no clinical judgment
This study posed to Google questions to which there are only two possible answers. Most health questions are much more complicated, and a search result brings in an enormous amount of information to sift through.
If your child has a fever—perhaps the most common reason to see a pediatrician—a search engine is practically of no help at all. A study looking at advice for kids with a fever found only three out of 22 sites visited gave information which matched current "best practice" guidelines. You may wind up worrying your head off over exotic and life-threatening causes of fever which have no relevance to your child. But how would you know? A study of Internet information on lumbar disc herniation ("slipped disc") found that less than 10 percent of relevant websites were of high-quality. Try searching “headache” and see what comes up.
Doctors don’t have secret information. Even complicated medical knowledge is widely available. The Internet is full of good information—and bad information and misinformation, too. Making sense of the information is what’s become harder and harder to do.
Doctors work many years to master clinical judgment—the application of information gathered from talking to and examining patients, combined with knowledge of the science of medicine, and that impossible-to-define art of medicine—that’s what makes a good doctor.
There’s no recipe for acquiring clinical judgment. The knowledge-base needs to be there (a service Google provides fairly well), but the thoughtful application of information comes from immersion in the care of patients, experience, interaction with peers and mentors, and a constant refinement and learning process. I don’t think a machine will ever be able to learn clinical judgment.
The Internet is one of my favorite inventions of all time, but it will never be able to answer complicated health questions, nor will it ever be able to offer comfort or compassion. Surfing health issues on the Internet is a great example of how a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing.
Nevertheless it’s a great resource for gathering information—provided you use reliable and authoritative sources—and that knowledge can be a great starting point for a discussion with a health professional who can help make sense of it all, put things in perspective and individualize it to your specific health issue.
Do you use the Internet for health related issues? Who do you trust?
I promise to share some of my favorite online sources of reliable medical information in a future post.