The Dangers of Online Diagnosis

Was it anthrax poisoning? Or lymphoma?

Those were the two possible diagnoses WebMD spat out when a sick friend of mine typed her symptoms into the site’s database.

Luckily, she had an appointment with a live doctor the next day.

The doctor diagnosed her with a severe case of strep throat or tonsillitis. Not nearly as life-threatening as anthrax poisoning or lymphoma, and completely treatable.

At least three-quarters of all Internet users do health research online, according to a recent article in The New York Times. And one in nine high-speed-connection users do health research on a given day.

Problem is, sites like WebMD offer the potential for misdiagnosis.

Some medical conditions have similar symptoms – and wildly different treatments. Confuse strep throat and the benign scratchy throat you get with a cold, and you could end up with rheumatic fever. On the other hand, a misdiagnosis could cause you to panic needlessly. (And who wouldn’t freak out just a little at the thought of having anthrax poisoning?)

We’ve written in ETR about “cyberchondriacs” – chronic worriers who self-diagnose online. Yet with 75 percent of Internet users visiting these sites, it is important to keep in mind some guidelines for using them responsibly.

Dr. James LaValle, founder of the LaValle Metabolic Institute, has this advice for ETR readers:

“While online searching to figure out what illness you may have can help you to better understand a condition or symptoms that you are experiencing, there is no substitute for getting checked out by your physician in person. Many times people come into our Institute worried that they have a dreaded illness based on their Web searching, and honestly the majority of the time they have come up with the absolute worse case scenario. So gain access to reputable information, and consult your healthcare provider before you go into a full-blown panic.”

[Ed. Note: Dr. James B. LaValle, RPh, ND, CCN, is a nationally recognized expert on natural therapies. In fact, in 1998 he was named one of the “50 Most Influential Druggists” by American Druggist for his work in natural medicine.]