How reliable is online medical advice?

In the modern age of smartphones and the ever-growing influence of the internet, more and more people are turning to the web for medical advice. In theory, it makes complete sense: it is a free, quick and convenient alternative to waiting to see a GP. However, the internet is not always the most reliable source for answering your medical queries. In fact, in some cases, the advice posed can do more harm than good.

The nature of the internet means that anyone has the ability to create a website and start posting content. While this freedom is great for those who innocently share their opinions through a blog, it can become dangerous when websites start to offer medical advice without any accreditations or sources. Many internet users can fall victim to thinking that a piece of medical advice is trustworthy just because they read it on the internet.

However, you can’t believe everything you read online. It is estimated that there are around 1.8 billion websites across the internet, therefore not every single site can be closely monitored for factual accuracy. A 2014 study looked at ten medical Wikipedia posts on popular medical topics, and cross referenced them with evidence based and peer-reviewed information. The study found that 9 out of 10 of these Wikipedia posts contained inaccurate medical information.

Furthermore, medical advice may be written by people who do not have the appropriate qualifications to speak on such matters. Other medical information may even be biased and written by an organisation who is merely looking to sell a product. For example, a website selling a ketogenic diet package may exaggerate the diet’s health benefits, while failing to mention the fact that this type of diet can cause fatigue and loss of muscle mass.

Using the internet for self diagnosis can also lead to internet users believing that they have severe medical conditions as a result of experiencing one incredibly broad symptom.

Dr Hemal Shah from Qured said: ‘There seems to be a growing trend towards patients being worried that they have cancer after reading advice or articles online. Thankfully, in the majority of cases, this is not the case. With early symptoms of cancer being so vague, they can crop up with any symptom search online’.

For example, an internet user with a sore throat may be led to believe that they have a tumor developing in their throat, while a more likely explanation would be that they simply have a common cold. Therefore, online medical advice can not only be unreliable, but also grossly misleading for hypochondriacs.

However, it would be unfair to say that the internet is a completely useless source for medical information. There are a number of reliable medical sources online that are written by qualified medical professionals and are supported with up to date medical evidence. When looking at a website, there are a few questions to ask in deciding whether or not a site is a reliable source of medical information:

Who wrote the information? – Is the website written by someone who has clearly listed their medical credentials? Are they a doctor, or simply someone who is giving their opinion on a particular health issue? Is the author of the information even identified at all?

What is the aim of the website? – Consider the purpose of the site before trusting its medical advice. The NHS website, for example, can be trusted as it is a well known, government-funded health organisation. On the other hand, if a site is trying to sell a product, then it is possible that the medical information offered may be swayed in their favour.

When was the information written? – As we know, medical research is constantly being refined and updated. Therefore, much of the medical information available on the internet is at risk of being outdated.. While older sources of information don’t have to be ruled out entirely, it is always best to consult medical information that is current and supported by up to date evidence.

Thankfully, it appears that Google have recently taken measures to filter out potentially harmful medical content from appearing to users on their search listings. In August, Google carried out an update on their search ranking algorithm that appeared to have affected a number of medical related websites that featured no medical accreditation or evidence alongside their information.

While the accuracy of online medical advice has improved slightly over the past few years, this is not to say that the internet should act as a total replacement for your local GP. Online medical advice should be viewed merely as a supplement; you should always seek advice from a doctor if you are worried about your health. Consulting the internet is completely fine, but remember to take the medical advice you read with a pinch of salt. After all, only a doctor has the ability to listen to your specific symptoms and medical history to make a qualified judgement as to how you should be treated.

Qured provides instantaneous access to doctors and medical advice through a variety of in-app services. Through their app, you can order a doctor or physio to your home and be seen within two hours.