The perils of searching the internet

Searching for reliable information on health conditions and diseases is not easy.

According to the website WorldWideWebSize the size of the indexed web on 2 September 2015 was at least 4.81 billion pages. (Indexed means the pages that are tagged by Google and Bing.) So the potential for information overload is immense, particularly if we use one of the big search engines. Even if we focus on health sources, PubMed which is probably the biggest database of medical papers, adds over a million new references every ear and indexes nearly 900,000 of these.

These days the internet is the first place many of us go and according to the website WebMD it means that “becoming a hypochondriac is much easier than it used to be.” There’s even a new term for it: Cyberchondria. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cyberchondriac as “A person who compulsively searches the Internet for information about particular real or imagined symptoms of illness”.

Writing in the Guardian columnist Holly Baxter commented:

Purely for research purposes, I just typed my own Wednesday symptoms of a runny nose, a slight headache and “dry hair” (it asked, so why not?) into a diagnostic search engine (WebMD, if you’re interested) and was given a myriad of exciting possibilities in return, including cocaine addiction and epilepsy.

There is also a recognised tendency to go to the internet to research possible “magic bullets” defined by Medicinenet as “The perfect drug to cure a disease with no danger of side effects.” So many websites promise that X will cure Y but without a clear evidence base to support the promise.

So how do we become “informed health consumers”? Through recognising the need to use reliable sources and learning how to identify them. In the following few sections we’ll be giving you some handy hints and tips for searching the internet more effectively and pointing you to high quality credible resources and also to some quality marks that you can use to help you determine whether you can trust a site.

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This article is from the free online course:

Making Sense of Evidence: The Informed Health Consumer

Cardiff University