Share This Page

Internet diagnoses can miss

| Monday, March 18, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

Admit it. First thing you do when you find a strange mole on your chest or cough incessantly for a week is jump on your computer. If you're like me, you go from website to website, trying to match your medical symptoms to something that makes you feel better and confident that you're not going to die.

When you find one symptom that fits with a rare form of cancer, you have a mild panic attack, sweat for a few days — and promptly forget about it. Lots of people do this.

Most Americans, roughly 59 percent of adults, look up health information online. About one in three takes it a step further and uses the Internet as a diagnostic tool, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Who needs a doctor when there's so much information out there, right?

What's fascinating about our Internet habits is that of those who use it for self-diagnosis, about a third do not follow up and go to a doctor to get a professional medical opinion. The Pew survey showed fewer than half of the respondents, or about 41 percent, had diagnoses validated by a doctor. Perhaps most interestingly, 18 percent of the respondents said a doctor didn't agree with their diagnosis or offered a different opinion.

The online world is a hypochondriac's paradise. It is filled with medical information once found only in medical school textbooks. At your fingertips are seemingly reliable facts from seemingly reliable sources about common and not-so-common illnesses. The overly curious can rejoice with full texts of peer-reviewed medical journals. Those worried about unlabeled pills in the bathroom cabinet can identify them with a pill identification wizard.

If that's not enough, there are sharp pictures of scarred livers, bloody hearts and lungs charred by years of smoking. You can find videos of open heart surgeries and knee replacement operations.

Helpful as the Internet is, there's a difference between a skin tag and a potentially deadly skin lesion. It could be disastrous to ignore a mole on your skin simply because you looked at a picture that didn't seem to be alarming and — in your mind — cleared yourself of signs of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

“It takes training to know what you're looking at,” said Dr. Laura Ferris, a dermatologist at UPMC who just published a study of four smartphone apps that claim to evaluate images of skin lesions. Ferris and her team found that one app accurately picked out cancerous moles 98 percent of the time, but two others were accurate just 70 percent of the time, and one app was right a mere 7 percent.

Ferris, who called herself an “app-oholic” when it comes to her smartphone, said she's all for using information technology but cautioned that “we need to do it in a more thoughtful way.”

She worries that without oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which monitors medical devices, people may be harmed and miss potentially deadly melanomas.

The same can be said when we rely too much on all that information we find on a Google search. Sometimes we need to suck it up, turn away from the computer or smartphone and get ourselves to the doctor.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He canbe reached at 412-320-7998or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.