WebMD: Good or Bad Medicine?

by Lisa Hanchey

What do you do when you are feeling bad but don't want to take the time to wait in a doctor's office?

Friday, Sept. 7, 2012
Written by Lisa Hanchey

Dr. Indira Gautam

What do you do when you are feeling bad but don't want to take the time to wait in a doctor's office? Many people resort to the Internet, where medical sites dispense advice with just a few strokes of the computer keyboard. One of the most well-known sites is WebMD, offering everything from a "symptomchecker" to info about drugs and supplements to healthy living tips.

But what do real-life docs think about these virtual doc websites? IND Monthly asked some area experts about the pros and cons of using WebMD and other Internet research sites.

Dr. Indira Gautam, a family medicine specialist at Regional Medical Center of Acadiana who has practiced in the Lafayette area for more than 10 years, is a proponent of selective Internet medical websites, including WebMD. "My feeling is that the foundation of medicine is to empower individuals to be able to take care of themselves," she says. "Sometimes, part of that empowerment does include prescribing medicines and other things that us doctors do. But at the end of the day, I think an informed patient is someone who is going to help me take care of them."

While some doctors take issue with patients who research their medical problems on the Internet, Gautam actually encourages it. "I have a discussion with my patients on the first or second visit about places on the Internet that I feel will give them valid information, and WebMD is one of those places that I mention," she says. "I encourage my patients to call me and discuss something that they read on the Internet if they don't understand it."

Cardiologist Dr. Kalyan Veerina of Cardiovascular Institute of the South finds that WebMD is a great resource for patients. "From a patient's perspective, it's a great resource in that you can go to the site and type in your questions about all kinds of topics, like what kind of screenings you need at a certain age," he says. "It will give you enough information to go to the next step. If you are really concerned about your personal health, then the next step would probably be to see a physician."

On the flip side, Gautam cautions that too much information might make patients unnecessarily anxious. "You can really start thinking that you might have a lot of very bad diseases," she observes. "Because the differential of the diseases that the websites go through, they are going to tell you about some of the worst things. We doctors keep those things in our minds when you come in and tell us about something. But we don't necessarily go and run to these diseases. You can get very anxious about things, just reading about them on the Internet."

Veerina advises consumers not to self-diagnose. "They can be misinformed or get paranoid about things they read on the Internet," he warns. "But they should go to the next step if they are truly concerned about something at a certain age or stage."

Patients should be wary of websites promising a quick fix for problems, particularly if it comes with a price tag. "If something promises something quickly and easily, it's probably not going to work," Gautam advises. "And you're going to spend money unnecessarily. If there's a quick fix to something, usually you really want to go research it rather than go out and buy whatever it is that these websites are recommending."

If you have a health concern, talk to your doctor. Period. "If you use WebMD as your only source, and you don't have a reliable physician that you can talk to and address your concerns, I think that's where the problem is," Gautam says. "That's where we build a lot of anxiety for no reason."
Other doctor-recommended websites include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and sites ending with .gov and .edu. But be aware that some sites might not be legitimate. "I think dot-gov sites are pretty good and valid sites, as well as .edu sites, because they are usually university-associated," Gautam reports. "But anybody can post anything they want on the Internet, and that's what's scary."

Overall, local experts find that an informed patient is the best patient. "I always enjoy patients who participate," Veerina says. "They are more likely to be more proactive about anything you tell them about, like exercising or staying focused on diet. The more informed they are, the more likely they are to take better care of themselves."