Navigating health information online

Graphic by Phil Waheed

Graphic by Phil Waheed

Sore throat? Headache? Swollen glands? The discovery of whatever is making you feel sick is only a click away on the Internet. With the web being well up-to-date with all sorts of medical information, it is easy for people to try and diagnose themselves. The real question: is it safe?

Concordia student Mia Di Carlo was under a lot of stress and experiencing heart palpitations when she turned to the Internet to find some answers.

“On some websites it said that it’s normal when you’re anxious. Then another website was saying that [palpitations] are deadly and need to be checked out by a doctor. So I was definitely uncertain and it was not reassuring,” says Di Carlo.

Rather than finding answers and relief, she found herself becoming even more stressed than before. Her heart palpitations got worse. Using the Internet to determine what is making you feel ill is only natural when so much information is at our fingertips. There are all sorts of web pages that not only help diagnose your symptoms, but can also help advise you on how to treat them.


Going online for answers

While there are very good and legitimate websites that are excellent resources, there are also some that are not as reliable. Many viruses have similar symptoms but very different treatments, making self-diagnosis a problem when it comes to more serious things. For example, the symptoms of mononucleosis and strep throat are pretty much the same. Even the way they are contracted is the same. The real difference is how they are treated, proving that it is very important to get a professional to examine you and look at your symptoms.

“The Internet is part of our life now. However, diagnosing oneself is never a good idea,” says Donna Cooper, a nurse at Concordia Health Services.

Though the web can be an excellent resource, Cooper advises people who are concerned about their health to go and talk to a health professional.

“Often people will come up with a diagnosis that’s really not even close to what’s wrong with them,” she explains.

Owen Moran, a health promotion specialist at Concordia, says that it is inevitable that people will turn to technology when it comes to their health.

“I believe that many people like to know what is going on with their health and they like to be proactive at it, so they seek out the information they need to understand what is going on,” he says.

He believes that people use the Internet for self-diagnosis for several reasons. The first is that the Internet is familiar to them and, just like people use it for booking plane tickets and communicating, getting health information is just an extension of that.  The Internet is also close, convenient and has a wide range of knowledge that is more than one physician might have.


Questions to ask yourself

According to an article written by Moran on the Concordia Health Services website, if students want to use online health resources, they need to be cautious and know what sort of website is reliable.  The article provides some questions that you should ask yourself about the website you are using such as:

– Who is responsible for this website?

– What is the purpose of the site?

– Where does the information come from?

– What is the quality of the information?

– Is the site up-to-date?

– Does the site respect your privacy?


It is important to find the answers to some of these questions in order to make sure that you are receiving proper information and also to make sure that the site does not have a slant. Some pharmaceutical companies that put up health websites only give their own products as means of treatment. They can omit better methods or products that can help, which can also be dangerous. Before ever settling for what you read on a website, it is always best for you to consult a doctor, no matter how small your concern may be.


Health related websites

In their October 2010 newsletter, Health Services listed a number of reliable websites. Here are three recommended sites from their list:

1. MedicineNet, is an American site offering information on diseases and conditions, symptoms and medications and a medical term dictionary.

2. Public Health Agency of Canada,, provides information on a variety of subjects including infectious and chronic diseases as well as a travel health section.

3. Go Ask Alice,, administered by Columbia University’s Health Services, the site provides answers to hundreds of questions asked by college students on alcohol, drugs, fitness, nutrition, sexuality, emotional health and more.


Regardless of what you find online, if symptoms are serious or if they persist individuals should see a physician to make sure they get the proper treatment.


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