By Jillian Gile
          Ever since the dawn of the internet, pundits and commentators have insisted that it is only a matter of time before it changes life as we know it. 
          They promised that face-to-face interaction would become obsolete, that personal privacy would become a thing of a past, and that eventually the whole system would become self-aware and take over the world (the last one is a stretch – but only a small one).
          Similar doom-and-gloom mentality has followed the health information websites like WebMD and other online diagnostic services.  Apparently, these websites will turn us all into armchair physicians, and we’ll no longer visit doctors because we’ve diagnosed our cough with lung cancer and we’re terminal anyway.
          Personally, I feel like this claim is as false as the idea that we would all be physically plugged into a digital interface by now.  Online medical sites are built to be sources of information, and as such can be so vague, bordering on overwhelming, that they probably result in more doctors’ visits than in web surfers languishing in their computer chairs.
          If you’ve ever visited WebMD, you’ll see that you type in a symptom, or choose from a list of ailments and topics.   In either case, you are led to a series of links that get straight to the point.  You’ll learn about the difference between ADD and ADHD, and find links to more information.  Type “cough” into the search bar and you’ll be led to a series of options from allergies to cancer.  You can read as much, or as little, about each topic as you’d wish – and never have I ever walked away from the computer thinking “well, that’s it, I know exactly what it is that’s ailing me.”
          WebMD was developed to bring patients, doctors, and insurance companies together in order to streamline the medical system (Diagnosing WebMD).  This vision has evolved over the years, and now seems to be a source that has just as much information as the brain of a general practice doctor – and isn’t that the exact challenge facing the medical field today?  Doctors are required to be experts on everything, and research is changing the field every day.  It is now up to the patient to be in control of their health, and ask the important questions.
          This is the strength of online medical information.  The average patient has not gone to medical school and is only familiar with a small range of common sicknesses, colds, etc.  WebMD is sort of like a surrogate doctor, yes, but only one that will give you the background you need in order to ask your real, live doctor the important questions.  If you’re not sure what chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is, you won’t know to ask your doctor if it is different than asthma – and he or she might not test you for it.  WebMD puts the power of knowledge into consumers’ hands, right where it should be.
          There are almost as many cautionary tales about misdiagnoses as there are about the dangers of diagnosing yourself, which seems like a pretty obvious contradiction to me.  No, you should not use online medical encyclopedias to determine if you should actually go see the doctor or not, and nowhere on any of these sites does it say “we’re 100% correct 100% of the time – save yourself the trouble and skip that appointment.”
          Knowledge is power, and nowhere is this more critical than in keeping yourself healthy.  Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor the important questions (a good list can be found here), and please do use the internet to find out if there is more information you should ask your doctor about.
          Jillian Gile is a guest blogger for An Apple a Day and a writer on the subject of medical transcription training for the Guide to Health Education.
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