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Internet diagnoses can miss

Luis Fábregas
| 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

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