All of us have gone to the Internet to make a consultation or clear up any doubts about our health, and it is worth asking ourselves: is the content on Health on the Internet reliable? Are there mechanisms in search engines that prioritise scientific and truthful information? Is it advisable to look for a diagnosis on the Internet? Are the Internet and Health technologies always our allies?
Those of us who work in communication have no doubt that the Internet has managed to democratize knowledge. But, those of us who have also specialized in Science and Health, have serious doubts about the fact that, in what has been called e-Health, everything is an advantage.
In a recent study about the evolution of searches related to Health, I read that the results that appear in the first positions, far from representing the most frequent diagnosis based on the symptoms sought, show those that generate the most impact or interaction. Or expressed with an example, if you look for “headache”, of the 1,520,000 results, the first positions will be occupied by those related to “brain tumor”, “dementia” or “multiple sclerosis”, which are not, fortunately, the main causes of a headache.
The relevance of the Internet in health matters is unquestionable. Carlos Elías, journalist, professor of Journalism at the Carlos III University of Madrid and well-known scientific divulger, in his book “El selfie de Galileo”, provides some data. 48.3% of the searches are related to Health. They are carried out by people of a medium-high cultural level, more women than men, and mostly young people. In addition, 60% of people who go to Primary Care, have previously sought a diagnosis on the Internet.
Wikipedia: Science vs Pseudoscience
Among the results that Google offers when we search on Health, those of Wikipedia are usually in the top positions.
It is important to know that Wikipedia is a platform, with more than 15 years of history, which has displaced, with an overwhelming domain, other prestigious and classic sources such as the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Encyclopedia Espasa.
Unlike the latter, in Wikipedia anyone can participate, whether or not they are experts in the field of which they write. That is to say, they are at the same level, a scientist expert and a neophyte, on a specific subject.
Many and many could think that this open and free platform has its own mechanisms of self-regulation, in such a way that a mistake is corrected later, and so on in a process that “purifies” the defects.
This is an interesting opinion, and it would undoubtedly be a very desirable mechanism, if not because in a media that demonstrates so much power, there is an ideological and economic battle that alters this dynamic and conditions the results.
Independent studies and research warn of how teams of people who respond to certain interests focus their efforts on incorporating data and content that reinforce “opinions” and “theories. In such a way that if in Wikipedia we look for information on objective matters -volume of the Earth, or distance to Mars- we will find reliable data, but not so when the consultation is about Politics, Philosophy, Society… or Health, where Wikipedia will continue putting at the same level the authority of a scientific expert and the information spilled by a pseudo-scientist, or worse still a “charlatan”.
In sensitive matters, such as Health, it is important to maintain a critical and responsible attitude towards the information we obtain on non-scientific and non-sanitary platforms.
The search for diagnosis on the Internet
The Internet is the medium to which we all go to obtain information when we detect some symptom of discomfort.
This is not bad in itself, having information is a legitimate aspiration and almost always, very convenient. Where is the problem then?
I mentioned that in Primary Care, 60% of the people who come, have previously searched the net for their symptoms, trying to locate a diagnosis and even a prognosis.
It is more and more frequent that in the consultation the professional has to dedicate part of his time to contrast and even to discuss with the patient the information or the conclusions with which he arrives.
Sometimes, the information that the patient receives, for example in Clinical Psychology, forms part of a strategy, of a process defined by the professional, that doses when and how to offer that information, as part of the clinical treatment. In this element of the clinical strategy, part of the efficacy of the treatment itself may lie.
Cyberchondria or Hypochondria 2.0. A syndrome associated with Health Technologies
A syndrome that has been talked about a lot lately is Cyberchondria, Digital Hypochondria or Hypochondria 2.0, all of them more or less analogous terms.
The symptoms of Cyberchondriasis appear in people between 30 and 55 years old. It is manifested by a compulsive behavior that leads to a constant search on the Internet for diagnoses, prognoses and treatments, which increases concern and anxiety for health, and in many cases leads to self-medication and / or self-treatment.
The positioning of the scientific in Google
Google is a search engine, which is based on complex algorithms, which aim to provide the most consistent results to searches made.
But it has a “dark side”. When you have the knowledge, the time and the precise techniques, anyone can get to position in the first places information, ideas or advice, which have no scientific or health basis.
Similarly, social networks such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram exert an extraordinary influence.
A person, group or entity can achieve notoriety thanks to a large number of followers, and disseminate pseudo-scientific theories, with greater reach than the information of scientists and health professionals, who usually only have time and motivation for other tasks.