If the menopause doesn’t get me, the cancer surely will

This is the second of two pieces I wrote on 8 October 2011 on the subject of searching online for health-related information and coming face-to-face with the issue of trust. This was the first one: snake oil, bone-shakers and witch-doctors 2.0″

Spurred on by my recent search for food information and the number of hokey websites I found myself looking at, I decided to go one step further and investigate some online diagnosis sites.

Once again, it is nigh on impossible to tell the voice you can trust from the ones that ought to be denied access to the internet altogether. And of the majority, which sit between those two extreme points, there is no easy way of knowing who is well-intentioned but essentially wrong on too many counts, and who is being deliberately misleading in order to promote their own beliefs.

I decided to spend a little time filling in some online forms, answering questions about my health, so I could see for myself what kind of information might be presented to someone entering into this sort of activity genuinely.

With a mind to some everyday aches and pains (the kind I imagine we all suffer from occasionally) I answered all the questions accurately and honestly. Well, mostly – I lied about my gender on one site. We’ll come on to that shortly.

It might be worth pointing out that my family doctor, a charming and thorough man, recently insisted I had a full set of blood tests and an ECG. Everything came back normal, and his assessment was that I am in very good shape for a man of my age. In fact, my lung capacity and strength is that of someone 20 years my junior, he said. Perhaps that’s from all the practice I have of blowing my own trumpet.

So what of the time I spent with Doctor Interwebz? What was the diagnosis from that?

Well, I have always believed that when it comes to any form of self-diagnosis all roads lead to cancer. These beliefs were not shattered by this weekend’s activities. In three parts of my body I am – allegedly – exhibiting symptoms that could indicate cancer.

In addition to which, I learned I need an urgent medical assessment of my cardio-vascular functions.

But my favourite diagnosis by far was the one that told me I was experiencing symptoms that indicate the onset of the menopause.

It’s hard not to laugh, which is why I did indeed laugh. But there is a serious point buried in here.

When it comes to online information, the issue of trust – it seems to me – is as valid today as it has ever been.

In some ways, I take comfort from the fact that little really changes when it comes to human nature. Some folk like to be scared, while others are happy to lead you astray.

It’s a jungle out there people – stay safe.

And for goodness sake, if you really are concerned about your health don’t go anywhere near the internet. Go and see a real doctor.

 

A footnote: I decided against including links to any of the sites I visited. Trust me, it’s for your own good. Added to which I don’t think they deserve the traffic.

Snake oil, bone-shakers and witch-doctors 2.0

This is the first of two pieces on the subject of using the internet to find reliable information regarding things connected with health.

Over the weekend I was searching online for information about which foods are a good source of different kinds of vitamins and minerals. Not for myself, but for one of my kids.

It was, I thought initially, a pretty straightforward thing to look for online.

But what happened next enabled me to see the internet in all its naked glory.

My first encounter with the internet was 20 years ago and these days I am rarely offline, except when I am asleep – much to the occasional chagrin of those around me.

Consequently I consider myself to be pretty savvy when it comes to using the internet. A digital native, if you will. I am well versed in finding what I want online and quickly navigating my way through the many pools of information therein, some deep and some not so.

But the food search episode was quite the revelation. Pretty much all the results returned by Google (which has been my weapon of choice for searching since 1998 and is likely to remain as such for the foreseeable) were from websites that looked at best questionable as sources of information and at worst downright misleading.

How, I asked myself, am I supposed to be able to tell in whom I should place my trust?

I trawled through page after page, site after site, and came to the conclusion that I couldn’t figure that one out. So I ignored them all, preferring to remain in blissful ignorance.

This, I realised, is what it must be like to be unfamiliar with the internet and to trust in the validity of all the search results Google delivers you.

One of the most enduring changes the internet has brought about is the democratisation of publishing. Anyone with an opinion, a computer and an internet connection can publish those opinions and, potentially, gather around them an audience of believing readers.

This is a good thing.  And also a not-so-good thing.