Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Reputable health information sources

Today, a US study reveals that 90% of Wikipedia medical entries are inaccurate. The researchers stress that people shouldn't be using the online encyclopaedia to diagnose their symptoms.

This comes as no surprise - and it's certainly not news. Many surveys over the years have revealed that too many people get inaccurate health information from the internet, family and friends, rather than go to their GP or another healthcare professional.

Wikipedia is hugely popular but it lets users create, delete and edit entries, without having any specialist knowledge themselves. This applies to all subjects, from finance to building materials, but it's particularly worrying when someone is relying on this knowledge to diagnose (and possible manage) a health condition.

So where should you get your health information from?

1. Your GP
There's no doubt that if you are experiencing severe or worsening symptoms, your first port of call should be your GP. There's nothing better than a proper physical examination to check for underlying causes or the chance to be referred for further tests or a hospital consultation. If you can't get an appointment with your GP straight away, try the practice nurse.

2. Your pharmacist
If your symptoms are relatively minor, you could ask a pharmacist for advice. You may be recommended some over-the-counter medicines, given practical suggestions or referred to your GP, optometrist, dentist etc, depending on the nature of the problem. Most pharmacies have a confidential area or consultation room if you want to speak in private.

3. The internet
You shouldn't use the internet for diagnosis, but heading to the right online sources can give you accurate information once you have already been diagnosed. NHS Choices and charities such as Diabetes UK, British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK have a wealth of information on their websites. There aren't many medical conditions or symptoms that won't be covered by one of the UK charities. If you require nutrition advice, check out the British Nutrition Foundation. Visit the National Pharmacy Associations' Ask the Pharmacist section for information on medicines and pharmacies. Make sure you use UK websites, as information about diagnosis and treatments varies from country to country. And always check the dates of publication on the websites to make sure the information is up to date.

4. Self-help groups
If you have been diagnosed with a medical condition like arthritis, diabetes or heart disease, you may find there is a support group in your local area. Generally these gatherings are for practical support and advice, but sometimes they hold talks by healthcare professionals or promote workshops to help you manage your symptoms more effectively. Call your GP surgery to check whether there is a support group in your local area, or try the website of the charity that is most relevant to your symptoms.

5. Family & friends
Let's face it, most of us have asked advice from those closest to us when we are struggling with symptoms. We shouldn't rely on family and friends for a diagnosis or health information (unless they are medically qualified). But there's nothing like practical support and self-help tips from people who share, or have shared, our experiences (just as with local self-help groups). It's important to be open about your symptoms and medical conditions as much as possible, as you may find that a friend of a friend or a relative of a relative knows exactly what you are going through and can provide the support you need.

6. Magazines and books
As a journalist and author, I should tell everyone to read as many health books and magazines as possible when researching their symptoms. But that wouldn't be a very responsible attitude. Many health books are thoroughly researched, but books tend to be written around a year in advance of publication and medical advice and information often changes during this time. Magazines tend to be more up-to-date, but certainly shouldn't be used for diagnosis. However, they may offer useful tips and background information (although you are relying on the fact that the journalist has thoroughly researched the articles before these are published).

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