WebMD the go-to site for health questions
Do I have the flu? Is this a bug bite? Why is my cough not any better? How do I treat a steam burn? Why am I so sick? Many individuals—who lack health insurance, harbor fears of the doctor’s office, or simply have inquiring minds—may choose to seek answers to these questions from WebMD.
According to the website, WebMD “provides credible information, supportive communities, and in-depth reference material about health subjects that matter to you.”
The site has five medical editors who are all board-certified medical doctors in various areas of treatment. They are responsible for reviewing content for accuracy and credibility.
“It has a fairly reputable editorial board,” says Dr. Raffi Tachdjian, whose Santa Monica-based practice focuses on allergy and immunology. “Presuming that the editors go through the articles submitted by the practitioners, it should be reliable. But patients or consumers should also do their homework.”
The site appears to have an answer for any medical inquiry. If users are concerned if they have the flu, for example, they can type “flu” into the search box, and over 2,000 results will appear according to relevance.
“I, personally, use it,” says Kasi Gountoumas, a registered nurse at the Santa Monica College Health Services Center. “I think it does provide some credible and in-depth medical news.”
The site has a “symptom checker” that suggests various diseases that may be associated with certain symptoms, which may promote fear for hypochondriacs.
“You have to know how to use it,” says Gountoumas. “Don’t always believe what you see. That’s why you have to go see a medical professional.”
The “symptom checker” works by prompting users to input some basic information, such as gender and age. The image of a human body appears, upon which users can either pinpoint the location of their pain, or search according to symptoms. What follows is a list of possible conditions, from the most likely (flu, cold, food poisoning) to the least likely (cancer).
Tachdjian says that additional steps should be taken for an accurate diagnosis, beyond simply searching for symptoms or reading an article on the site.
“You don’t know if you have your facts right in gearing yourself toward a potential article, because it’s going to now completely steer you toward an angle; it’s going to pigeonhole you, potentially,” he says. “For that reason alone, I would say talk to a regular doc, at least to bounce it off him or her.”
Like most health professionals, Tachdjian says that self-diagnosis can be dangerous to a person’s health.
“It can go on either side, where you miss it and say, ‘Oh, this is nothing,’ or you can over-medicate or over-intervene,” says Tachdjian.
While there are no other sites quite like WebMD, Mayo Clinic’s website has gained traction in providing online medical advice.
Mayo Clinic offers many of the same services as WebMD, including lists of diseases and conditions, as well as a simplified symptom checker. The site is edited by a multitude of health professionals, doctors and registered nurses in varying fields of expertise.
Gountoumas says that, in the end, a website is still a website, so she recommends using it with caution.
“If you have symptoms and it’s getting worse, you should always consult a physician,” Gountoumas says. “Don’t rely on a website to tell you what to do.”