Take two aspirin and look it up on the Internet - this advice is fast becoming the standard prescription for anyone facing a new or major illness in the West. Medical journals, text books, encyclopedias, research papers, and huge international databases once available only to doctors are now just a mouse click away.
Savvy patients can even learn about a breakthrough before their doctor does, and the internet has given birth to a new group of informed, empowered patients who want to make medical decisions in partnership with their doctors, instead of just blindly following the doctors advise.
While everyone knows that theres a wealth of medical information on the Net, why are most patients in India still so reluctant to make use of this ? For one, most Indians have become very used to passively following their doctors advise.
Questions are not encouraged in India - either in the classroom when we are students, or in the doctors clinic when we become patients. Also, medical jargon can be intimidating, because it is unfamiliar ( since many words are derived from the classic languages such as Greek and Latin) and is therefore difficult to follow - so must of us would rather not take the trouble of researching our problem independently.
Many intelligent people are also worried that a " little knowledge is a dangerous thing " and are anxious that they may become "half-baked" doctors or hypochondriacs. There is also the worry that knowledge about medical diseases ( and all the nasty complications they can cause ) can result in an increased fear about death and dying - and most people would much rather not come to terms with their own mortality.
Many people also prefer to leave everything upto their doctor - after all, thats what you pay him for, isnt it - why confuse yourself with alternatives and options ( the " doctor as a highly paid technician " approach). Another problem is that there are still very few sites about health and medicine in India ( most websites are US in origin) with the result that a lot of the information on the Net is irrelevant to Indians.
So how can you use the internet intelligently to find out more about your medical problem ? Let me start with a warning - it is unwise to try to diagnose yourself - dont try to play doctor ! If you have a medical problem I strongly recommend that you seek a qualified medical opinion from your own doctor, who can see you, conduct tests if necessary, and diagnose you properly.
Once you have a diagnosis, your search for information on the Net can become focussed and productive.
Searching for information on the Net is very similar to looking up a book. You turn to the index to look for a particular topic, and on the Net you can use google !
The trouble is that these engines are unintelligent, so that a search usually retrieves thousands of websites- the majority of which are completely irrelevant to your query - and its hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Search engines are most useful when you are looking for information on a rare problem, or very specific information only.
Be sure to try several different search engines when looking for information since each one can have different listings included in their data base.
You also need to double check your spellings - an error can mean you may not retrieve any useful information at all ! Try to be as precise as possible in order to retrieve relevant information only ( for example, if you are looking for information on eye problems in diabetes, do a search on " diabetic ocular complications".)
Its easy to get lost in the flood of garbage which a standard search produces, which is why many patients often despair of ever being able to find anything useful or understandable on the Net. In order to make their life easier, experts have put together evaluated subject gateways or medical search engines, to make directed searching for relevant information easier. As their name implies these search services provide the user with a gateway to medical resources on the Internet.
However, rather than provide a comprehensive ( but unranked or unsorted ) listing of Internet sites, only those that meet a defined quality threshold are included.
The websites are also ranked, according to their quality and usefulness, as determined by these experts.
These gateways are produced by medical libraries, doctors and other organizations, and are useful to both new Internet users - who may be unsure where to begin - and experienced surfers who are frustrated with ploughing through the inevitable volume of irrelevant dross when using any of the more general search tools.
If you are a novice, it can be helpful to have a friendly doctor ( or medical student ) or a librarian to guide you with your first few searches, to teach you how to search efficiently. ( Librarian-mediated searches are available at HELP.) If you want a comprehensive search of the Internet you must be prepared to search multiple gateways and search engines - the much sought after one-stop information medical source has yet to appear. Remember that theres a lot more on the Net than just tons of textual information on thousands of websites -you can admire anatomy in three dimensions thanks to virtual reality, and even watch video clips of surgery online ! However, mining the Net for information need not be a one-dimensional affair - the real charm of the Net lies in its interactivity , so that you can get a response to your queries !
There are many doctors and health professionals on the internet who will respond to medical questions.
These responses are meant to educate the questioner and the public and cannot be a method of rendering personal medical care. Occasionally a response might be directly by email, but most sites use the bulletin board forum and archive all the responses ( what are called FAQs or frequently asked questions) , so that everyone can search, view, and benefit from the information.
There are also a few live question and answer chat sessions. If you cant make the scheduled chat time, then at many of the sites you can post your question ahead of time and return later to view the transcripts of the chat and see if your questioned was answered. During the live discussion sessions, you need to ask your question through a moderator and whether or not your question gets answered depends on the number of participants and their questions.
Email, Newsgroups, Listsevs and Mailing Lists
The Internet also provides a cloak of anonymity, and this is particularly important with illnesses that carry a social stigma, such as infertility or AIDS.
If you have been able to identify an expert on your problem, it is also possible to send him an email directly, and he may then reply to you. You can find email addresses of doctors through a little bit of lateral thinking. Many leading clinics, hospitals and medical colleges have websites which list the names, addresses and emails of their faculty members. You can also find these by searching PubMed ! Also, many authors of medical journal articles now include their email addresses along with their institutional address.
Once youve found the information, how do you evaluate it ? This is still the most difficult part of searching for medical information, and unfortunately many patients become misinformed thanks to the Net.
The problem, of course, is anyone can publish on the net - and its not easy to make out whether the information being presented is credible or not ! A good website should be accurate, useful, credible , readable, uptodate and have useful links to other sites - but the most important guideline is to find the source of the information !
Remember that a lot of the medical information on the Net is designed for the doctor, and this can be quite complex to understand, because it is primarily written for medical professionals.
However, this is usually the most reliable, and many leading medical journals now available on the Net , such as the British Medical Journal, the Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, only publish studies after they have been carefully reviewed by leading doctors .
Though these may look intimidating, you dont need a medical degree to read them - each one has a conclusion and a summary that contain most of what youll need to know.
It is important to think about how much information you need from the Net to make yourself comfortable with your diagnosis and treatment options.
Some people need as much information as they can possibly gather, while others find less information, or information with a specific focus, is best for them.
A warning - do not accept the contents of any single website as definitive.
It is in the nature of medical research that many studies contain errors, many conclusions are false, and many reports flawed.
This is why you need your doctors help to make sense of your information search, because he can best explain to you how the information you have unearthed applies to you as an individual. You need to form a partnership with your doctor - but it should be a partnership of well-informed equals , for which you need to do your homework first ! Remember that the information you retrieve on the Net is simply a tool to help you to get better medical care - it should help to improve the communication between you and your doctor - not replace it !
This is based on an article I wrote for Times Computing.
Sometimes it is easy to take a doctors word as law, and to follow them completely. However they are human, and do make mistakes. Alexander Harris Solicitors understands that no ones infallible, and that you shouldnt suffer because of it.