Monday, June 13, 2005

Web is great place for health info, but no substitute for medical care

Today’s Consumer Watch column about new ratings of the top 20 health-information Web sites drew a quick response – and a word of caution – from Kathy Dibling, of Williamstown, N.J., who says she once turned to the Web whenever she had medical concerns but doesn't anymore.

“I thought I could diagnose myself,” Dibling says. “I always ended up doing it incorrectly and increasing my anxiety level. So I stopped. Now, I just call the doctor.”

“These sites are very useful if you know what the problem is or are fairly sure,” Dibling adds. But she argues, as some doctors do, that in the wrong patient’s hands, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I had that point in mind when I wrote that consumers use these sites, for better or worse, to guide critical choices. But Dibling's e-mail makes me realize that I should have addressed it head-on. So let me emphasize it here:

A smart patient should never substitute his or her own research – online or at the library – for a visit to the doctor.

But two other points are also worth emphasis:

One is that by becoming an informed and knowledgeable consumer of health services, you can sometimes help your doctor reach the right diagnosis; occasionally, some patients may find good reason to seek another opinion, or even a more trustworthy doctor.

The other point is that, no matter how you use the health information you find on the Web, the best-rated sites are likely to leave you better-informed. That's why these new Consumer Health WebWatch ratings are valuable. (To see them, click here.)

But don’t fall into the trap that Dibling did, of using the Internet instead of seeing a doctor.

And remember: No matter how well-informed you are, the doctor is the one with the medical education and training, and the experience in knowing how to apply them.


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