Are you the type who goes online to check your medical symptoms, only to end up freaking yourself out, fearing that you may be sicker than you are?
Researching your aches and pains before seeing your doctor is a good idea, says Dr. Mehmet Oz, though he worries that patients may be making themselves extra-anxious.
“It’s a very good thing to do,” he said on TODAY Friday. “However, if you’re looking for a hangnail and you find out that some tropical disease could cause it and you think you’re going to die, that causes anxiety and frustration. We don’t want to do that. We want to go in the opposite direction.”
Take comfort in knowing that you're not the only one who worries about what you find online, and that there are easy steps you can take to make your Web searching more effective.
Oz offered suggestions on how to get better, more reliable health information online:
Click past the first page of search results
There may be more reliable sources past the first page, yet 90 percent of people don’t go past the first page; 60 percent don’t go past the first three items, Oz said.
“Go to the second page,” he said, noting that some sites may be trying to sell products. “There’s lots of great information out there. Take advantage of it. It takes you no extra time.”
Type the minus sign (-) in the search field
Use the minus sign when searching Google to filter out things you don’t want to hear about or the kinds of sites you don’t want to view.
“If I’m searching for a hangnail, I don’t want to hear from bloggers or messaging boards,” Oz said, suggesting using the minus sign and word ‘blog.’
- “You’ll find dramatic changes in your search,” he said. “You’ll start going to actual physician’s or nurse sites, high-quality sites, as opposed to things that are probably going to get complicated and mess your mind up.”
Rely on sites run by the government and educational institutions
More than half of all websites have the .com suffix, and Oz said there is no quality control on those sites because anybody can buy them. Start with sites that end in .edu and .gov for higher quality information.
“They’re very rare,” Oz said, adding that they account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent. “Trust them.”
Check the author
On any given website or article, check the author’s credentials. “Are they really a physician or nurse or health professional?” Oz said. “Where do they practice?”
“If you haven’t heard of the university they work at, that’s a bad sign,” he said. “And by doing quality control on who wrote it, you’ll get much better quality material.”
Be wary of sites with ads
If a site is selling a health product it is promoting, it may not be a reliable source of information.
“I’m writing an article about how fantastic some herb you’ve never heard of is and right next to it, I can buy it,” Oz said, giving an example of a site to watch out for. “It’s too easy. It’s too convenient.”
After improving your search techniques, when is the right time to call the doctor? Sooner, rather than later.
“Be a good student, do your homework with your search, but go talk to him, even if it’s an email or a call,” Oz said. “It’s so easy right now to get in contact with us, especially primary care docs.
“They want to hear from you, early rather than late,” he added. “It’s much easier to fix your problems if they know about them.”
Lisa A. Flam, a regular contributor to TODAY.com, is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.