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Ask Dr Google: Where should you go for health information?

While going to Google for a medical diagnosis is not recommended, there are some trusted health websites that can help prompt the right conversations with your doctor – if you use them correctly. 

There’s a dull ache on the side of your head that’s been bothering you for days. It isn’t getting any better, so naturally, you turn to your mobile. After 20 minutes of scrolling articles on Google, you decide it’s a tension headache caused by hunching over your computer late into the night, so you ignore it and hope it goes away. It’s only when you eventually get fed up with the pain and a migraine – a neurological condition that needs careful, customised management.

Getting misleading health information from the internet can slow down your recovery – and there can be more serious impacts, too. But if you’re using a reliable source of online health information, the internet can be a gateway to healthy decisions.

“It can help people to understand what’s going on, so that they’re not as fearful of what’s happening,” says Dr Harry Nespolon, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “There are some studies to show that people who go online and do some research know the best questions to ask their doctor. And there is some evidence that it does make a difference in improving people’s understanding of their – or their friend or family’s – condition.”

A 2018 study of 400 adults at two Melbourne hospital emergency departments found most patients who’d researched their symptoms online in advance were more empowered by what they’d found: 79.5% of participants reported Dr Google had helped them understand their treating doctor better.

But Dr Nespolon stresses that to make sure online health information supports your understanding rather than misleads it, you have to go to the right places.

Reliable health websites

Dr Nespolon says there are four main types of websites that can deliver trusted health advice:

Government websites (both state and federal):

Australian hospital websites, like:

Certain overseas websites that report world-leading, credible, medical research, like:

Peak-body websites for specific conditions, like:

The risks of using Google for health advice

One of the health risks of using Google is the internet can’t put your symptoms into any meaningful context in the way a doctor can, according to Dr Nespolon.

“The thing that’s often missing most from symptom-type websites is they don’t see the patient as a whole,” he explains.  

He also cautions seeking out online health information may increase stress in some people – in the Melbourne study, 40% of participants felt Dr Google had made them worried or anxious.

Although Dr Nespolon says Google can assist your health literacy, it’s very important to speak to your GP rather than trying to reach conclusions on your own.

“People shouldn’t change any of their behaviours or health care without talking to their GP,” he says.

“Before you decide to take on a new course of treatment – even if it’s not straight up and down medicine – it’s better to talk to your GP. Just because something is natural, for example, doesn’t mean it’s safe, and it might interact with other medicine you’re taking.”

Other recommended websites for health information

Here are a few more recommended websites that can provide health information:

Words by Trudie McConnochie
First published May 2020

 

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