WebMD: The Pros and Cons

This image shows a man look up his symptoms on WebMD over the internet.

So it turns out the internet isn’t just for looking at pictures of cats (who knew?), you can also use it to diagnose your medical maladies. WebMD is one of numerous online diagnosis sites that have popped up in the last few years. If and when you’re sick, these sites allow you to list your symptoms and see what the probable causes are. This is done either by searching the symptoms directly, or clicking through diagrams of the anatomy and selecting suggestions for what your symptoms may be. Once you’ve submitted these symptoms, a list pops up of the potential ailments that the all-knowing doctor of the interweb believes may explain your symptoms.

In this hi-tech, fast paced, instant gratification era that we’re all living in, sites such as WebMD are becoming increasingly popular. Let’s face it, anyone with a laptop or smartphone and a propensity for being too lazy to arrange a Dr’s appointment has used one. We’ve all woken up with a rash, or a sore throat, maybe a body part looks a bit swollen, and we can’t face the hassle of making an appointment with the doc, taking the day off work and sitting in a doctor’s office full of sickly, sneezing, potentially contagious types, only to be told we simply have a common cold or have a mild allergy to our new detergent. Instead, we whip out our smartphone and tap away explaining to WebMD what’s sore or swollen or leaking, and the internet tells us “all is ok, no appointment is necessary, go about your day as normal” or, what seems more likely on these sites “Warning! You absolutely have x,y,z and every other letter of the alphabet, death is im­minent!”.

Clearly, there are reasons why self-diagnosis is not such a grand idea. Namely, we haven’t seen WebMD’s medical qualifications - where did this great wise interweb doctor do his 7 years of medical school? More importantly, if you’re self diagnosing with your laptop, there goes your chance of getting a lollipop from the nurse for being a good patient.

With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of using online diagnostic sites to see whether this is the way forward for healthcare or a misguided fad.

The Pros

A supposed 80% of people with internet access have googled their symptoms in an attempt to diagnose themselves. So what kind of information can these people garner? How beneficial is self-diagnosis? Well, there are several positives to using the internet and WebMD as a tool in understanding your body and potential illnesses.

Firstly, diagnostic sites give us easy and immediate access to knowledge about what could potentially be wrong with us. This allows us to gauge the severity of our illness without taking time out of our day to visit the doctor and potentially pay them a large fee to tell us to “rest up and drink plenty of fluids”. There are examples of people using WebMD or googling symptoms to find out that their ailments could easily be cured with something readily available at home or prescription-free from a pharmacy. Online diagnostic sites can therefore quickly and easily help us to separate the serious things requiring a trip to the doctors from minor illnesses that are easily treatable.

A second reason using WebMD is a good idea is the convenience and financial savings that can be made from a quick internet search. In places without free or subsidised healthcare (we’re looking at you America), any Doctor’s trip can cost you big bucks. This is especially frustrating if your trip was pointless and your symptoms not serious. A quick googling of symptoms can let you judge the severity of your illness (though not professionally), and see whether you need the inconvenient and potentially expensive trip to the doctors (of course, medical costs can be subverted through a good health insurance plan). The amount of time and effort saved by a quick WebMD search is staggering compared to the time people can spend waiting around in doctor’s offices reading that same edition of [insert any women’s magazine here] from last year while they wait for everyone else that didn’t WebMD their symptoms to see the doctor first. Averting a trip to the doctor’s office will be particularly beneficial to those that work long hours, or are more socially awkward and don’t want to have a stranger (even a professional one) poking and prodding them if they can avoid it.

Finally, WebMD and other diagnostic sites are helpful in creating a quicker discourse with your doctor if you do go and see them about your symptoms. You can walk into their consultation room with at least some information and potential ideas of what you may have that can cut through many of the questions doctors have to ask to get to the root of the problem. If instead of them asking you what hurts, and what type of pain the hurting feels like (“...bad hurting? I don’t know!”)  you can, with a little bit of internet-garnered information, explain exactly the symptoms you’re experiencing. Not only will you feel like a boss doing this, but the doctor can cut straight to a more accurate diagnosis. You can even see if his diagnosis matches any that appeared on the website, increasing the chances that that is what you’re suffering from.

WebMD as an aid used to speed up diagnosis is most definitely a helpful tool, but it should not replace going to the doctors entirely. Let’s take a look at some of the cons of using online diagnostic sites.

The Cons

There is one main con with using WebMD to diagnose your symptoms, and that is that everything is cancer. Everything! Using online diagnosis sites just begs for the creation of, or encouragement of existing hypochondriacs. Having the “power” to determine what is wrong with your own body through a simple internet search means having the ability to abuse that power as well. Many people take what the search results say as gospel. This means believing that the sore throat and sniffles you woke up with is a brain tumour because the internet said that it might be (instead of possibly being, you know, a common cold).

This ‘Cyberchondria’ is an increasingly prevalent problem which is why it’s important to stress that the internet can NOT substitute for a human doctor with several years of training and experience. Believing every ailment you have is a tumour or some other serious disease creates an epidemic of paranoid hypochondriacs that will end up going to the doctor anyway because they believe they have something far worse than they actually do, making the whole process of using WebMD redundant.

As mentioned above, WebMD’s medical diploma seems to be pretty nonexistant, there are no thank you cards up in it’s office from patients saved throughout the years, and none of those fancy gold plated plaques showing all of the conferences and courses that the website has attended. Would you trust a doctor without these things? No? Well then maybe take your internet-given diagnosis with a grain of salt - or better yet, some reasoning and rationality. WebMD is a great guide to use, but it is not a human. The internet cannot squeeze your bits and pieces, check your throat, ears and eyes, prescribe you medication or perform surgery (yet) and so should not be used as a substitute for visiting an actual medical professional.

Misdiagnosing yourself because of a website, or failing to diagnose your illness because you haven’t listed your symptoms correctly or the search algorithm on the site hasn’t linked together the symptoms you’re showing is a dangerous prospect. While it is true that a doctor can make mistakes as well, they are far more likely to pick up on your actual symptoms, your demeanour, appearance and physical health when assessing you than you or a search engine are. That is why they go to school for so long. Don’t believe that WebMD is the be all and end all of medical diagnoses and not seek medical help if doing so could lead to your death. Misdiagnosing a brain tumour as a common cold will be a sorry mistake to make (then again, maybe I’m just paranoid about that whole brain tumour thing still).

Clearly, there are some benefits, and some significant flaws in using sites such as WebMD to diagnose yourself. Hopefully this article has managed to shed some light on what these pros and cons are. It is unlikely that the use of these sites will diminish over time, as people are always going to be curious about how their body works and what may be wrong with it. However, please do not forgo the qualified help of a physician for the internet, just to save a bit of time and money, as you could have something seriously wrong with you. If you are the type of person who avoids visiting the docs just to save a bit of money, then get yourself some health insurance before anything is wrong and then the costs are taken care of.


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