My wife claims that those who use WebMD can be classified into two camps: optimistic and pessimistic.
An optimist, she says, will search symptoms on WebMD and ultimately rule out the most serious of ailments based on the possible causes offered.
A pessimist will search the same symptoms and see only doom and gloom, and focus on the gravest of possible outcomes (e.g., long-term illness, death), let alone the most serious of causes.
Of course, my wife and I both use WebMD. When you have four kids, it’s not financially prudent to visit the urgent care at the sound of every sniffle.
Luckily, my wife and I tend to fall into the optimists’ camp when using health information sites.
“I actually recommend patients use [WebMD],” said Dr. Mike Sevilla, a family physician in Salem.
“It’s probably the most popular site that my patients mention to me during office visits.”
Aside from being an expert on connecting with patients online, Sevilla is a highly sought-after speaker, in part because of his use of social media and Internet. He’s my go-to-expert anytime I have questions about online health advice.
“Medical sites like WebMD are really good at specific questions like: What are the signs and symptoms of a heart attack? What are the signs and symptoms of a stroke? These sites cannot put symptoms together for you and give you a diagnosis,” Sevilla said.
In addition to WebMD, Sevilla recommends patients use the Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic websites. But like anything you read online, he warns pessimists and others to proceed with caution.
“I tell my patients, sites like WebMD are like the World Book Encyclopedia,” Sevilla said.
“When I was growing up, my parents bought an entire set of [encyclopedias], and I remember going back and reading about a lot of topics, and eventually found myself reading more about health-related topics.”
“And just like the encyclopedia, you can learn about a disease using WebMD, but it can’t diagnose you,” Sevilla added. “And, obviously, you should never diagnose yourself.”
Working at the Family Practice Center of Salem and the Salem Regional Medical Center, he sees many patients who visit only after looking at WebMD and other health sites first.
“I have patients say, ‘In WebMD, I put in that I’m fatigued and I’ve had some abdominal pain and it told me I have cancer. Do I have cancer?’”
Sevilla is quick to remind both optimists and pessimists that only health professionals can paint the big picture.
“Trained medical experts are the only ones who can synthesize and integrate things like your symptoms, your previous health history, your family history, and other pieces of information to come up with a diagnosis.”
Check out Dr. Sevilla’s blog at drmikesevilla.com, and follow him on Twitter at @drmikesevilla.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.