The Internet is a platform unlike any the world has ever seen. The cost of putting information online is low, and this freedom is being used by individuals and institutes to share information with others. Health information, in particular, is a popular topic online, and people are turning to the Internet to help diagnose and treat medical problems.
In some cases, this information is incredibly helpful. People with relatively minor symptoms are using the Internet to find remedies. Further, people are collaborating in forums and on social media to share advice. Those with diabetes, for example, are sharing advice about managing their treatment with others. Diabetic-friendly recipes are easy to find, and the encouragement diabetics give to each other helps some find the motivation they need to exercise and eat well. Further, parents of children with strong allergies can find products to avoid through these Internet resources.
Unfortunately, much of the information posted only is simply incorrect. Some communities embrace conspiracy theories and poorly-sourced advice to treat a variety of diseases. For example, there are some who use bad studies and faulty reasoning to argue that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS, and some who suffer from HIV have died because they believed this bogus information. Similarly, some cancer patients have read from disreputable websites that nutrition and exercise can cure cancer, which has lead to premature deaths.
Another potential danger posed by the Internet is that people will diagnose themselves instead of seeking expert medical advice. Even if the information is accurate, diagnoses require training and experience; those who diagnose themselves risk incorrectly interpreting their symptoms. As a result, people may leave potentially dangerous problems undiagnosed and untreated.
Because of the Internet, it has become even more obvious that people are capable of convincing themselves that their preferred interpretations are accurate. Because of the diversity of information online, people can often find others arguing in support of their ideas. This can lead to a lack of critical thought. Part of the training that doctors and nurses receive is learning how to look at problems in an unbiased manner. Doctors and nurses rely on others to eliminate the possibility of personal biases leading to inaccurate medical diagnoses, but non-experts may disregard this advice and only seek information that supports their viewpoints.
A common ailment among medical students is referred to as Sophomore Medical Student Syndrome. Many people have anxieties about their health, and this can manifest as irrationally thinking relating to one’s interpretation of symptoms. Medical students will often come to believe that even the mildest cough is a sign of serious disease, and some end up enduring considerable anxiety. Because of the Internet, this syndrome is spreading beyond the walls of medical schools. Doctors are often confronted with patients who believe that their minor symptoms are indicative of serious diseases, and no amount of explanation can shake their beliefs.
On the whole, medical experts are torn about how beneficial the Internet has been for patients. The negative aspects of the abundance of information certainly leads to improper treatment of medical problems, but it also creates a valuable community for many who suffer from diseases. Those who suffer from rare conditions often know nobody else who is dealing with the same disease; the Internet has changed this. While people are advised to be extremely cautious with information they find online, these communities improve patients’ abilities to deal with their medical problems.