One common aspect of telereading is tele-researching. It has become a lot easier since the advent of search engines to find out just about anything you want to know on the Internet. The problem is, a lot of it is not necessarily true, and nobody knows this better than doctors.

The Southtown Star has an article on what one doctor calls “Google-itis”—a hypochondriac condition induced by haphazard symptom matching to the results of Internet searching.

[Dr. Prashant Deshpande], of Southwest Pediatrics in Palos Park, says what this practice does best is increase paranoia. Search engines are better at pointing a patient toward rare diseases, when it’s more likely they’re suffering from something more commonplace, he said.

One doctor has even put computers in his exam rooms so he can go over Google searches with patients to calm their fears. (Found via Slashdot.)

But misdiagnosis is only half of the medical misinformation problem—the other half is mistreatment. At the same time I found the Southtown Star article, I came across another on BoingBoing proposing the use of large doses of niacin (vitamin B3) to treat Restless Leg Syndrome.

While the stories as presented in the article sound reasonable, the results have not been professionally evaluated, and as people in the BoingBoing comment thread point out, “the plural of anecdote is not data.” There is good reason that proposed courses of treatment have to go through extensive testing, even if they use substances or medication that are already considered safe for other purposes.

And it is only a short jump from sites proposing alternate treatment of real medical problems to those less-reputable ones that propose the use of overdoses of niacin for “detoxification” or determining the right dose to experience continuous overdose symptoms.

The bad reputation the pharmaceutical industry has built for itself with its blatant misuse of patents and doctored drug tests make it tempting to believe one simply does not need them—but without real medical knowledge, the average person is ill-equipped to judge what effect these courses of treatment will really have on his body.

In the end, what it all comes down to is that believing medical advice you read on the Internet can be hazardous to your peace of mind, if not actively your health. If the diagnosis or treatment that a website suggests seems to run counter to conventional wisdom, check with a professional before buying into it.


  1. Speaking as someone who’s currently recovering from an illness that came close to killing me . . .

    I couldn’t have made it through the last three months without Google-itis. My doctor only had a half hour each week to examine me and try to figure out what was causing my symptoms. What I was able to do during the remaining eighty hours of my waking time was do online research of diseases that had my symptoms, including rare diseases, because guess what? People do get rare diseases. And without the Internet, it’s less likely that people with rare diseases will be able to ask their doctor, “Might I have this disease?”

    I’ve found that every responsible doctor welcomes patient queries like this, because it gives them an opportunity to explore options they might otherwise not have considered. Even if 99% of the time, the answer is, “No, you don’t have that disease,” the 1% of the time that the patient turns out to be right could save lives.

    Every reputable medical Website has a disclaimer saying that you should check with your doctor before medicating. As for the disreputable Websites . . . I’d like to think that that part of computer literacy is evaluating carefully what you read online.

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