We have all been there: waking up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache, nausea, rashes on skin or another ailment with an unexplained origin. More often than not, first thing we’re inclined to do is begin Googling our symptoms, looking for possible problems our symptoms can lead to and treatments that can ameliorate them.
And while sometimes Internet searches can lead to the right answers, other times it can lead to anxiety or what’s called cyberchondria: the unfounded concern over common symptoms based on online literature and research. Once someone begins self-diagnosing and agonizing over a health problem they may have, this becomes an issue.
If Dr. Wikipedia says you have, Pleuropulmonary blastoma,you should better get a second opinion. Because, according to a paper published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, most Wikipedia articles representing the 10 most costly medical conditions in the United States contain many errors when checked against standard peer-reviewed sources.
The study, led by Dr. Robert T. Hasty, where her group examined the Wikipedia posts on the ten costliest conditions in the U.S., those that drive the majority of both public and private health care costs: coronary heart disease, lung cancer, depression, concussion, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, back pain, and high cholesterol.
In a blinded process, 2 randomly assigned investigators independently reviewed each article and identified all assertions (ie, implication or statement of fact) made in it. The reviewer then conducted a literature search to determine whether each assertion was supported by evidence. The assertions found by each reviewer were compared and analyzed to determine whether assertions made by Wikipedia for these conditions were supported by peer-reviewed sources.
Of all of these, only the entry on concussions was consistent with the latest scientific research. This isn’t great news, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project, eight in 10 Internet users look online for health information and that about half of medical students admit to using Wikipedia as a reference.
The Internet is here to stay in healthcare and rather than discouraging the patients from using the Internet in the hopes that they don’t end up scaring themselves with false information, doctors should perhaps explore other alternatives and opportunities for what this resource can do. Looking at ways to use the Internet to identify if symptoms are more likely side effects of medication than symptoms of the illness itself.
Another possibility is using the Internet to develop a website that will ask patients questions about their symptoms and use an algorithm to come up with possible problems. Although algorithm based diagnosis is not new and have been used in conditions like Dementia for eg. ADI 10/66 Project. But there is a need to develop more validated and standardized protocols.
Hasty RT, Garbalosa RC, Barbato VA, Valdes PJ Jr, Powers DW, Hernandez E, John JS, Suciu G, Qureshi F, Popa-Radu M, San Jose S, Drexler N, Patankar R, Paz JR, King CW, Gerber HN, Valladares MG, & Somji AA (2014). Wikipedia vs peer-reviewed medical literature for information about the 10 most costly medical conditions. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 114 (5), 368-73 PMID: 24778001