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Internet search engines have become useful tools for personal research in many ways. When we are experiencing uncommon physical or emotional symptoms, we may turn to search engines to identify what the cause of our symptoms may be or for guidance on how to resolve them. Many of us will begin our research without evaluating how reliable our sources of information actually are. Therefore, knowing which ones to trust can be difficult. While we always recommend seeing a healthcare professional for diagnosis or treatment, there is a lot that you can learn about a given condition from your own personal research through trusted sources.

Have you ever fallen ill and searched for your symptoms online, only to have the internet tell you that you have some fatal or incurable disease? Later on, you probably discovered the cause of your illness was something more benign. We have all had experiences like these. Instead of avoiding researching symptoms completely, we wanted to offer some useful tips and suggestions for finding trustworthy, reliable health resources. 

It is important to evaluate what you come across on the internet because:

  • Anyone can post information to the internet
  • Search engine results are categorized by computer software, not by healthcare professionals
  • Websites may be advertising products instead of providing useful health information

Useful Tips When Searching Symptoms

If you want to research your symptoms to achieve peace of mind, there are a few tips to keep in mind so that you are better able to trust your sources. 

#1. Identify Website Addresses

Always be cautious with website URL addresses when you are doing your research. See what kind of organization is sponsoring the website. Some websites are sponsored by the government, educational institutions, or other credible organizations that typically provide unbiased information. 

  • .gov = US government
  • .edu = educational institution
  • .org = professional and/or non-profit organization
  • .com = commercial website

If there is an “About Us” link on the website’s information page, always take a look at it. These links can tell you a lot about the organization’s purpose such as if they are trying to promote commercial products and/or services or promote health education. You can also look for contact information for the organization, such as a phone number or email, so that you can learn more about them. 

#2. Identify When the Information Was Published

When health education websites list conditions, symptoms, diagnosis, or suggested treatment, there is almost always a publication date. Look for any information on the page that leads you to believe that the information is up-to-date. If there is no indication of when the information was updated last, assume that the information is invalid. If internal links do not work, the website itself may be outdated.

#3. Subjective vs. Objective Information

Identify whether the information published is based on fact (evidence) or based on opinion. You can locate catchphrases such as “reviewed by” to make sure that the information presented has been medically reviewed as fact. Another way to decipher whether the given information is subjective or objective is to compare information from other credible websites. Online support groups or forums are a great place to connect with people that may share similar experiences or conditions, but these sources should not be viewed as a trustworthy source for medical or health information. 

#4. Check if Evidence Is Sourced

In deciphering fact from opinion, another way you can locate reliable health information is to check if their evidence is sourced. A reliable health education organization should provide evidence, such as researched statistics, from its own research or other reliable sources that identify data. If an article uses hyperlinks, click on the links to ensure that the data they are mentioning is reliable and supports the website’s claims. If there are no hyperlinks, the website should source article titles to provide credible evidence. 

Things to Consider

Information that you find online should not replace your primary care physician’s or therapist’s advice. Your healthcare professional is the best and most reliable source for up-to-date information and is a great resource to answer questions about your personal health. If you find information online that clashes with your doctor’s advice, ask your doctor about the discrepancy. This is also a great way to verify whether or not your own research is considered reliable to your mental wellness. If you cling to online diagnoses or conditions that seem fatal in regards to symptoms you are experiencing, you are more likely to develop unnecessary panic or stress. If you use the internet as an in-between in regards to when or if you should see your doctor, utilize it. Your doctor will be able to provide you with greater peace of mind than the internet can.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • Could you provide me with reliable websites that I could use to look up health information?
  • Which kinds of websites are the most reliable?
  • Are there any websites that I should avoid?
  • Should I call you if I read something on a reliable website that could affect my physical or mental health?

The internet can be a useful tool to identify the cause of personal health symptoms, but it can be difficult to identify which websites are reliable and trustworthy. When you are researching your symptoms or diagnosis, always be sure that the information you come across is up to date and medically reviewed or published. Be able to identify the organization or website’s purpose and determine if they are selling a product or solely providing health education. You can also use other ways to check credibility, such as looking at the website’s URL address and comparing information from other credible sources. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we know how frustrating and scary it can be to experience new health symptoms. Our team of healthcare professionals wants to equip you with useful tools and resources so that you can be an advocate for your personal mental wellbeing. For more information about the resources we offer, call us at (760) 492-6509.

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