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Medical information on Web can help, but self-diagnosis might hurt

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Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, 10:19 p.m.

Cathryn Schultz, a Plum resident who had skin cancer several years ago, later became paranoid about “every teeny, tiny freckle I had on my body.”

Schultz, 41, searched the Internet for information about skin spots, and would call her doctor in a panic, assuming the worst: a recurrence of the cancer. She panicked when she woke up with vertigo, convinced she had a horrendous condition. Yet, each time Schultz has felt fear from something she read on the Internet, her doctor would reassure her that she was all right.

“In general, when you throw symptoms out there, what you get back is the worst-case scenario,” Schultz says. “Overall, any time I've researched anything, I would say 99.9 percent of the time I've ended up overreacting.

“I think that people should really take caution,” she says. “There's so much out there.”

In the electronic age, it's tempting, and often helpful, to search the web for information about aches and pains. Yet, doctors and researchers caution people not to self-diagnose, which can lead to misinformation and overreacting, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, suggests that people tend to over-estimate their symptoms and assume the worst-case scenario described on websites — far more than they would if they were thinking about someone else's symptoms. The study found that people cause themselves unnecessary anxiety by self-diagnosing.

Dr. Mike Semelka, director of Westmoreland County-based Excela Health's Family Medicine Residency Program, says he can't imagine any doctor would be surprised by the results of this study.

“It is unavoidable that patients are going to use the Internet to self-diagnose,” Semelka says. “As physicians, it is incumbent upon us to listen to our patients' concerns and then be very upfront with them if we disagree with their self-diagnoses.”

Dr. Heather Hanzlik, an internal medicine doctor in Natrona Heights and Lower Burrell, says patients regularly present her with information from the Internet, or sources like “The Dr. Oz Show.” Some patients seem panicked by assuming the worst, she says. Or, they can underreact, and not see their doctors when they should.

“The Internet can be a scary place — it tends to tell you the worst,” says Hanzlik, who is Schultz's physician. “A lot of patients are worried, rightfully so, and they lose their objectivity, not taking into account the list of symptoms we go through to either confirm or negate a diagnosis.”

Overall, your doctor should be your primary source of medical information — not Google, Hanzlik says. Some websites are non-scientific and quackish, but even the most credible ones, like WebMD, can't examine you, or know your medical profile like your doctor can, she says.

“It's very important to work as a team with your physician and not to rely on the Internet,” Hanzlik says.

Several years ago, Connie Testa of Pleasant Hills underwent a hysterectomy because of severe endometreosis. Reading websites like helped to supplement what her surgeon told her.

“When I looked at symptoms, I would say, ‘That sounds like me, that sounds like me,' ” says Testa, 44. But she approaches medical websites with skepticism.

“Don't believe everything you read on the Internet,” she says. “There's no replacement for that one-on-one attention.”

Dr. Michael Yao, a Monroeville family physician and geriatrician, says medical information from the Internet can be helpful, depending on how much stock patients place in it.

“I think that more and more, doctors really have started to recognize that this is a phenomenon that is part of our culture,” Yao says. “Really, the new paradigm is about educating our consumers.”

Patients who tend to be hypochondriacs especially spend a lot of time on the Internet, and worrying about their symptoms, he says.

“Part of my job is to put things in perspective for them,” he says, “calm them down and help explain things. Don't panic if you read something that's kind of scary. It may not apply to you, and you may be misinterpreting the information.”

Yao and Hanzlik advise people to bring all concerns to their doctors. Make a list of your questions and bring it to your appointment, so you can go over everything thoroughly.

“A well-informed patient ... in combination with an obviously open-minded physician who will take the time to listen to that patient's symptoms, is the best combination,” Hanzlik says.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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