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Is an Online Diagnosis from WebMD, Mayo Clinic, or Other Sites Safe?

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At the first sign of a cough, an ache, or a few too many sleepless nights, do you dial your regular doc or just Google the symptoms? Probably the latter: 88 percent of Americans turn to the web, apps, and other sources to get more information about a health problem before visiting a professional, according to a new survey from SleepRate, a company that partners with Stanford University to address sleep issues. (When should you worry? 7 Symptoms You Should Never Ignore.)

We all know WebMD isn’t as good as a real doctor: 43 percent of adults surveyed admit they have concerns that this online info might lead to a mis-self-diagnosis. The good news? 88 percent still report seeing a doctor at least once a year for professional care.

The risk of self-diagnosing is real, but reliable medical sites may actually be making us healthier: “As a practicing physician, I think any way people want to take charge of their health is a good thing,” says Robert Wergin, M.D., Nebraska-based family physician and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “I often have patients that come in with questions or printed pages from research they’ve done, and I like that they care about their health.” (Take your health into your own hands: 5 DIY Health Checks that Could Save Your Life.)

The only issue? There’s two, actually: The first is the reliability of where you’re getting your information from. If you’re using an inaccurate site, it can magnify your symptoms and cause you to panic, give you false reassurance that your 102-degree fever is normal, or cause you to self-medicate, Wergin explains. Stick with reliable sites like WebMD, Johns Hopkins’ Medicine, and the Mayo Clinic.

The second important part of maintaining a healthy medical research habit? Having an established relationship with an in-person physician. “Relationship-based care is incredibly important so you have someone to answer your questions and personalize the information to your pre-existing conditions and medical history,” Wergin adds. (They can only be helpful if you're honest, though. Remember these 6 Things You're Not Telling Your Doc But Should.)

If you have a primary care doc, you can usually just call their office and talk to a nurse about your symptoms, what you’ve read online, and if it’s serious enough that you need to come in for a visit (and the answer’s not always yes—they’ll know if this sounds like something you can treat with OTC medication). If you don’t have a regular doc, your local hospital or clinic will often have a call-a-nurse line as well, Wergin says. And if your office has electronic health records, it’s even easier: You can send a question in through an online portal and your doctor or a nurse will answer you.

And if you’re thinking about skipping the check-up and just following the treatment plan WebMD suggests, reconsider: Your symptoms can fit a lot of different diagnosis’, so while starting with a site can help form your questions, only a licensed, in-person doctor who is aware of your medical history can make an accurate diagnosis. Google can't do that...yet.

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