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How to Look Up Medical Information Online

Updated on April 28, 2012

The last time I was at my specialist doctor’s office I had a very strange interaction. At the end of the visit he threw out a word I didn’t recognize:

“I think it’s just perniosis, so I’ll start you on this cream and we’ll see how it goes.”
“Sorry, can you spell that?”
“I want to look it up.”
“No! Don’t look it up. I spend way too much of my time combatting misinformation patients look up on the internet.”
“Well, I’m always very careful about my sources. I have just always felt that my healthcare is my responsibility and that doctors are there as guides.”
“That’s true.”
“…okay. Well, how am I supposed to take responsibility for it if I can’t even look up my diagnosis.”
Shrug and eye roll on his part.
Okay then…thanks for that.

This doctor’s concern is very real. When you get a headache or find a rash on your arm or a bump on your neck plugging your symptoms into a search engine is high on the list of “Dumbest Things You Could Possibly Do”.

This is because people who write online like to get hits, no matter what they’re writing about, and that means drawing in every possible reader. A little time online and your convinced that bump on your neck is some sort of cancerous growth, then on your next visit to the doctor’s office, all wound up from days of stress, your doctor looks at you calmly and says, “It’s just a swollen gland. Drink some orange juice and you should be fine.”

When NOT to look it up

Do you have an alarming symptom? Looking it up online is exactly what you do NOT want to do. Because odds are, whether you have a swollen gland or a stubbed toe, the internet is going to convince that your death is imminent. If you have something that’s freaking you out just make a doctor’s appointment, if it’s really freaking you out than there is something you can look up online: a nurse’s hotline. Those operators tend to be nice and level headed. They’ll surely convince you that the canker sore in your mouth won’t give you cancer.

Never diagnose yourself.

So, when it is okay to look something up online?

When you already have a diagnosis

It is perfectly acceptable to look something up if you know you have it, in fact it’s responsible but you still have to be aware of your sources. Websites like Medhelp and WebMD tend to have pretty good information, other than that you’ll want to stick with cited studies. Stay away from message boards unless you’re looking for support in dealing with an aspect of your condition. Anything you hear there will be anecdotal, not factually based, and some of it may not be true at all.

I presented my doctor with a number of studies done on this medication and asked her to prescribe it to me.
I presented my doctor with a number of studies done on this medication and asked her to prescribe it to me.

To learn about the medication you’re taking

Have you been prescribed something? Or are you already taking it? I would actually suggest doing your own research before you take a new medication. But restrict your research unless you can seriously restrain that imagination. Sites like RxList and MedicineNet have great info about different medications. Studies (with cited sources including the facility that conducted them) are another great option for learning more about a medication your doctor has suggested. But, remember that those side effects lists are exhaustive, and legally necessary. Odds are you’ll experience few, if any of them. Believe me, if you took the time to read the side effects of some of the foods you eat every day you would be living of biofilm for the rest of your life.

How to use the information

Now you have the information on your diagnosis or some medication a doctor suggested. Odds are that information lead to new questions or concerns. What you DON’T want to do is barge into your doctor’s office with a volley of angry questions about why he/she didn’t tell you these things.

Either email your doctor the links to your sources or make an appointment and visit them with all the sources in hand. Give your doctor the opportunity to do their own research. In some cases, they too will learn something new, more often than not they will be able to further enlighten you

What if my doctor won’t listen?

If your doctor is a bit of a jerk and you don’t believe a thing he/she says than you’re already not living up to your responsibility to yourself and your own medical care. You need a doctor you can trust and who will listen to your concerns, but try not to try their patience with medical “facts” you found on Wikipedia (the epitome of the “non-source”).

A short list

The list is short, but for good reason. There are few occasions when looking up your own medical information is a good idea. There is a reason that doctors, nurses and pharmacists go to school for years and there is a considerable amount of misinformation out there. Remember, if you are careful and conscientious the internet can be a great resource for learning more about your condition or medication but it is NOT your doctor.


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    • IntroduceCroatia profile image

      Ante Rajic 5 years ago from Croatia

      Some good info you have here, I'm going to bookmark this hub.

      Voted u.

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 5 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

    • Be Pain Free profile image

      Be Pain Free 5 years ago from Florida

      Holy cow, FINALLY. I love the message that using "Dr. Google" usually does more harm than good, along with the fact that... if a symptom is mild... it's probably nothing. Sure, it could be super-AIDS, and it will be on the list for every conceivable problem (fever? Could be AIDS. Lip bumps? Holy crap AIDS.). Sorry if this is flippant about something serious, but Dr. Google is a good way of turning a simple fleeting concern into an all-out panic attack.

      Er, anyway, thanks for the article. Voted up, with everything but "beautiful" clicked!