"Health-care forums are definitely another tool that individuals can use in order to crowdsource a diagnosis based on their symptoms," added Dr. Natasha Burgert of KC Kids Doc. "I think that these can be a really powerful tool not only for discussing potential diagnosis or symptom relief but also finding a forum of individuals in which you can discuss emotional and psychological parts of an illness and develop a wonderful online support community."
The trick is to be wary about the issues being discussed in forums and how germane they are to you. And, you know, if people start talking about homemade remedies fashioned from bleach, maybe click off and see a doc.
You know that game "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon"? There should seriously be a version of that called "6 Degrees of Cancer" -- as in, when looking up your symptoms online, how long does it take to deduce that you have a life-threatening disease instead of, say, a simple cold?
According to Burgert, the root of this whole "worst-case scenario" thing is getting too emotional.
"For most intents and purposes, when you're looking for online health information, it's about yourself or a family member," she said. "When you're looking through that lens, it's very hard to keep emotional distance. So you can read about a diagnosis that either makes you very scared or calms your fears -- and that's the path you'll continue down, whether it's correct or not."
Burgert suggested using online symptom checkers simply to "understand possible diagnoses, find some initial steps for relieving the symptoms and determine if this is something that needs further evaluation or that can be managed at home."
SymCat and Mayo Clinic's symptom checker let you type in what you're experiencing and unearth a spectrum of diagnoses and suggestions for when to seek a doctor's aid. Your doctor's website might also have such a tool.
Voila, you just increased your separation from cancer by at least a couple of degrees.
Keeping mum around MDs
"I think, traditionally, many physicians are a little apprehensive when that stereotypical patient comes to their office with big stacks of printouts from the Internet," Pho said. "But I think more and more doctors are accepting it. Personally, I think that transparency of information is helpful in a way."
Translation: Help your doctor help you. If you're worried about a particular medical situation and did some research to help narrow down what's ailing you, share that info with your physician.
"I really appreciate when patients bring in information that they found online, because it allows me to guide my instruction and plan based on their true concerns," Burgert said. "People get scared when they get sick and hurt, and they want to use multiple sources of information to help themselves. The Internet adds to that physician's expertise in order to do that."
Pho suggests using tracking apps (Bloodnote and Tap & Track are a few examples) to keep tabs on blood pressure, weight, heart rate and other areas that are of particular concern to you and your MD.
"These apps and sites give patients so much data about themselves that they never had before," he said.
And a log is useful to your doctor, who can scan for abnormalities and patterns that you may have missed.
Remember, though, knowing how to use the Internet doesn't make you a doctor. Google doesn't count as a second opinion. If you're unhappy with your doc's diagnosis, go get one the traditional way.
Putting off the inevitable
If your ailment isn't going away, all the symptom-checking and Mayo Clinic-ing in the world isn't going to help you.
Make a doctor's appointment. Like, right now.