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Today's Family Magazine

Dr. Google may not be your best friend

By Deanna Adams

It’s been going on ever since the Internet was born but now it has a name: Cyberchondria. It’s the term used to describe people who look up their symptoms online, then jump to conclusions about what is wrong with them. Think hypochondriacs with computers.

We’re all guilty of it, of course. And the practice is nothing new. Before the Internet, people would talk to their neighbors or friends, or read an article, and then be certain the symptoms they, or their children had, were the worst case scenario.

And because of the ease of computers, 72% of U. S. adults have searched for health information online in the past year, and 35 % have tried to self-diagnose a medical condition, according to Pew Research Center. Of course, too much information can lead to excessive worry and fear.

But nowadays it’s just too easy. You have a physical symptom that you have no knowledge about and at the touch of a keyboard and a mouse click, you can find out something.

But that something can cause great, and at times, unnecessary, anxiety. And parents, who often awaken at night with a sick child, can be the worst offenders. It’s only natural, of course, to seek out answers and information right away, however, it’s important to be cautious.

For good, practical advice on this issue, Today’s Family turns to Dr. Carolyn Landis, who is professor of pediatrics with Developmental/Behavioral Pediatrics & Psychology at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, part of the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

Q. Do you feel there is a lot of misinformation on the Internet, or has it gotten better through the years?
A. There is so much misinformation on the Internet, and unfortunately, most people don’t understand how to access the most reliable sources, and also do not have the educational background to understand original sources (like scientific articles). It always concerns me when parents tell me they were doing “research” on something, which means reading information on the Internet. That is not research.

Q. Why, and when, is it not a good idea to turn to the Internet when it comes to children's health? What's the danger in self-diagnosing?
A. It can be dangerous to access information on the Internet to try to diagnose children’s health conditions. The likelihood of either over, or under, responding to the symptoms is quite high. Any concerning symptoms should be reported to a professional as soon as possible to get the correct advice or diagnosis.

Q. What is a "responsible" way to Google for information?
A. If you must Google information about a health condition, stay with nationally known medical centers or societies. Do not seek information from lesser known sites that include blogs or comments.

Q. Can Googling create more unnecessary anxiety, or perhaps even make symptoms (perceived) worse?
A. Yes, Googling can make symptoms be perceived as worse because extremely rare conditions can be thought to exist at a higher rate. The danger is that parents may increase their own, as well as their child's anxiety, and try to obtain unnecessary medical tests.  It is the professional’s job to limit unnecessary consultation and tests when the child’s symptoms are within the normal range.

Q. Should a parent always follow up with a physician, even if they believe it's just the flu or something not too serious?
A. If parents have concerns, they should always contact their health provider. Oftentimes it is possible to contact a nurse first to go through a series of questions to determine if the child should be brought into the clinic.

It is good to note, also, that your local pharmacist, who is trained to do more than just dispense medication, can be helpful with your questions. More pharmacies are expanding the range of health services they provide to patients and evolving into community health hubs. If you have a question about the general health of a family member or yourself, and your doctor isn’t readily available, give your friendly pharmacist a call.

Bottom line, the Internet can be a useful tool.  It oftentimes provides good information and can answer your immediate questions. Some physicians have even said that informed patients have made them more efficient doctors. The best scenario is to use the Internet wisely and cautiously, then follow up with a visit to a medical professional.

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