Medical Information On The Internet : A Double Edged Sword

In this article, we discuss how to avoid some common mistakes while browsing the net for information on cancer.

In previous posts, we have talked about sourcing useful cancer-related information. We have also explored specific good-quality resources for cancer on the internet.

In my personal experience, people use the internet for the following information on cancer care:

1. Self-diagnosis: It’s common for people to analyze symptoms on internet search engines to try to arrive at a medical diagnosis.  Unfortunately, research clearly shows that such diagnoses are wrong most of the time. There are risks of both overdiagnosis or underdiagnosis.  In my practice, I frequently see young women with harmless breast conditions who are certain that they have breast cancer because they looked up their symptoms on the internet (“cyberchondria”).  Even worse is when someone with cancer presents at an advanced stage because their “internet research” told them they have a non-cancerous condition – a classic example is a patient with rectal cancer convinced that he just had hemorrhoids (confirmation bias). 

2. Understanding the disease and its treatment: Once a diagnosis of cancer (or other illness) is established, it is natural for people to want to know more about their illness.  There are plenty of reliable internet resources and, in my practice, I make it a habit to provide a list of such resources to my patients to go through in their own time.  But a casual search on the internet for ways to test and treat serious illnesses (including cancer) may not always provide authentic information.  For a layperson, it may be quite difficult to distinguish between accurate and misleading content.  Also, even when information on the internet is technically correct, it may not be simple to put it in the correct perspective for an individual patient.

3. Searching for “best” doctor or “best” hospital for treatment: It was just a few years back when we started using the internet to search “best restaurant in Bangalore for dosa” or “best mobile phone under Rs.20,000.”  Until recently, I assumed that the search results for the “best hair cutting salon near me” would be based on an unbiased poll of a large (statistically significant) number of people who have used the service, as well as the service of other salons in the vicinity, in addition to the input of technical experts.  At the time, I wondered how internet search engines could find out who does the “best” surgery for a particular condition or which hospital is the “best” for it.  It is while starting this blog that I was exposed to the concepts of SEO (search engine optimization) and keyword optimization.

Obviously, it is not possible for someone to undergo the same surgery in different hospitals under the same conditions, and then participate in an analysis that involves a large number of similar people.  A person visiting his ailing friend can bring down the rating of a hospital if he is unhappy that his coffee was cold! And no points for guessing how Google is one of the most valuable companies in the world when searching on it is totally free of charge!

To conclude, while the internet and search engines can be a boon for patients and families seeking medical information, we need to be certain of the credibility of online resources to avoid dangerous misinformation.



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