It’s not always cancer: how to google your health care questions

With the rise of online resources like WebMD, many people follow the, “don’t google it,” rule when they have a health concern or are recently diagnosed with a condition.

While there are obvious pitfalls to googling your health issues, it is important to be an informed patient. And being informed can mean turning to Google or WebMD!

Primary care doctors and specialists have a number of burdens placed upon them that make spending an extended time with a patient or thinking about a patient challenging. Doctors face billing issues, technology challenges, and staffing shortages. A 2017 MedScape survey found that doctors spend an average of 13-24 minutes with each patient they see. Now, this is not meant to cause alarm or mistrust in your doctor — doctors still have plenty of time to have thorough conversations and provide excellent care. But, it may not give you, the patient, enough time to have all your questions answered — or to even think of the questions you might want to ask!

To overcome this issue, HIP recommends you take WebMd off of your banned website list and consider when you can research your medical concerns and conditions for your own benefit.

 

Drug Interactions

If you’re sick or taking a new medication you may be curious how your medications work together. Let’s say you have a cold — can you take Mucinex DM and Sudafed? The best answer would obviously be to ask your doctor, and we encourage you to do so. But, if that’s not an option or something you know you honestly won’t do, HIP recommends two specific tools:

 

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Beyond checking if two drugs will interact with one another, you can also use these tools to understand how certain foods or beverages might interact with drugs. The tool can be particularly helpful if you’re planning a big night out and also taking medication. For example, we can see that Mucinex DM has a “moderate” interaction with alcohol.

 
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Read the Research

If you have a question about a health condition or new treatment consider reading the actual medical research around your question. Medical research changes over time and it may be helpful to read through the most up to date, published work. It can be helpful to give you proper context and to ask the right questions to your doctor.

Many researchers are now working to make their publications approachable for a range of audiences — including patients. There are a few places you can look for publicly available medical research like NIH’s Health Information page, CDC’s Patients & Conditions page which details the most frequently searched conditions, PubMed.org a branch of the National Institute of Health which compiles medical research, and CDC’s Databases for Public Health Research – a list of resources the public can access.
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From personal experience, I found reading medical research insightful and helpful in making a complex medical decision. I get migraines with aura (basically disruptions to my vision) which means taking oral birth control can put me at a higher risk for stroke. But, my genetic history, like many women’s, also puts me at risk for ovarian cancer. Oral birth control is great preventative care for women with high risk for ovarian cancer. I was faced with a question of whether to stay on oral birth control to lower the risk of ovarian cancer or to switch birth control methods to reduce the risk of stroke. My doctor advocated for an IUD or arm implant. I struggled with this question and while my doctor was helpful, she ultimately couldn’t make the decision for me. Overwhelmed by the options, I felt that I needed to get a better understanding of the actual, existing research. As patients, we must be empowered to confidently make our own decisions and that often means seeking out more information.

After reading through recent research and summaries of the actual studies on women, I felt not only more informed, but also more relaxed in making a decision. It made the choice less scary and reminded me that all medical choices carry some degree of risk. Understanding the research also gave me more information to start an open conversation with my doctor where I felt like I was on equal footing to push back and have a constructive dialogue.

 

Put it in Perspective

The important thing to remember when reading through research or Google searches is that ultimately you still didn’t go to medical school. You can be informed for the benefit of starting or sustaining a conversation with your doctor but the internet alone cannot treat you. Use WebMD and other online resources to become a better advocate for yourself. These resources have a bad rap for leading you to a cancer diagnosis but like anything in health care they’re fine in moderation!

 

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