How looking up symptoms online can be bad or good

2013-10-19T18:00:00Z 2013-10-20T23:54:04Z How looking up symptoms online can be bad or goodVanessa Renderman vanessa.renderman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3244 nwitimes.com

At the first sign of a cough or weird bump, there are people who go right to a keyboard and mouse, clicking and typing in symptoms and coming up with their own diagnosis.

Doctors say it is not necessarily a bad idea, as long as it does not get out of hand.

Dr. Michael Mirochna, who works in family medicine at Lake Porter Primary Care in Valparaiso, said a fair number of patients turn to the Internet to interpret symptoms.

“I actually advise patients to look things up,” Mirochna said. “Go ahead and Google it. Sometimes it is helpful.”

YouTube can demonstrate inhaler techniques, for example.

“I'm always an advocate for patients getting more educated,” he said.

But, it can also lead patients down the wrong path, if they consider it gospel.

“The part where I think it's the most hurtful is when patients may have something that is benign or something that will go away with time, and sometimes people get it stuck in their head they're certain they have something,” Mirochna said. 

Patients can waste time and money unnecessarily, he said.

“Sometimes it can lead to some anxiety in patients that sometimes won't let go until they get the tests they want,” he said. 

The key is for patients to find a balance by using information from the Internet to guide discussions and frame questions for their doctor.

“It's good to have an educated patient,” Mirochna said. 

Harm comes in to play when, even after having that discussion with the physician, a patient insists on having certain tests to rule out their concern. The medical/legal aspect comes up, Mirochna said.

“It sometimes puts the physician in a tough spot,” he said.

Physicians do not want to face legal ramifications of turning down a patient's request for certain tests, should something bad happen.

Highland resident Carrie Bourgo turned to the Internet when her infant son screamed and cried for three months straight. Acid reflux medicine wasn't helping, and someone in an online forum suggested eliminating dairy. It worked.

"Two days later, he was a different baby," she said.

After that success, Bourgo again went online for clues to solve her own medical mystery that had her in and out of doctors offices and undergoing testing since she was 14.

As a teen, she was plagued by episodes of vertigo and an off equilibrium that doctors attributed to stress. Symptoms piled up. She had slurred speech and overall weakness.

After getting married and becoming a mom, her health deteriorated. She relied on a cane and had a full body collapse. A slew of specialists and tests came up with no answers.

"So I got back online," she said.

Members of a medical forum suggested she ask her doctor about Chiari malformations, which are defects in the part of the brain that controls balance.

Her doctor thought it was genetic condition instead, which tests confirmed. Knowing what it was, she got back online to read others' stories.

"It literally saved my life," she said.

Bourgo has gone online for tips on modifying her family's diet to help eliminate gluten and artificial ingredients. They follow the Feingold Diet and make their own version of foods and drinks.

"We all are feeling much healthier and better," she said.

She even started a Facebook page called Food Zebra to help other people trying to follow gluten- and dairy-free diets.

Bourgo advises people who search the Internet for answers to medical maladies to find reputable websites where people share personal stories of coping with their illness.

Her husband studies breast cancer at the University of Chicago and helps steer her toward professional websites, Bourgo said.

Too many sites are floated by groups with their own interests and agenda, said Dr. Kirti Ramnivas, a child psychiatrist with Franciscan St. Margaret Health hospitals in Dyer and Hammond.

Ramnivas likes when the parent of a patient has done online research. 

"They're showing interest," she said. "I think it is very helpful that they go over the information because they feel more empowered, more confident in asking questions."

Those patients also are more likely to return for follow-up care and implement the doctor's orders, she said.

“I like it because they ask very targeted questions,” she said. “They feel more in control, and I certainly approve of it.”

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