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Finding sound health-related information online

Let’s be honest: we all google our symptoms. But doing your own research rarely gives you the reassurance you seek. Even so, your doctor’s surgery isn’t the only place where you’ll get sound information on your health. Experts explain where to find it.

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Sanitas

Whether they have a lump behind their ear or a rash on their forearm, most people first turn to Dr Google, searching for their symptoms, trawling through forums and reading health guides to find out what’s wrong with them. By the time they go to the doctor they’ll have spent a lot of time looking into their supposed complaint.

We asked two experts what sources of information they’d particularly recommend.

Research tip from Reto Villiger, children’s doctor in Wettingen: “The more complex the symptoms, the less likely you are to find what you’re looking for on the internet.”

“Parents often look up specific disorders or their children’s symptoms on the internet. Often I experience that as a good thing because the parents have given some thought to the problem and I don’t have to cast the net so wide. But searching on the internet can also be very disconcerting. In those cases it’s important to talk to a doctor. The internet provides a hotchpotch of information of very varying quality, and often it’s difficult for laypeople to gauge what’s reliable.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the web is much better at providing information on diagnoses that have already been made than at helping you make your own diagnosis on the basis of a specific set of symptoms. The general rule is that you should always consult a doctor when there are indications of a dangerous disease.”

Tips:

  • Official bodies: You’ll find free, good-quality information on the websites of medical societies, health authorities (for example www.bag.admin.ch) and organisations devoted to specific diseases, such as Lungenliga (lung problems) or Allergiezentrum Schweiz (allergies). The disadvantage is that in most cases this information isn’t oriented to symptoms.
  • Books for download: The book ”Ryan, Kate and the others” is really good for the parents of small children, as it’s broken down by symptoms.
  • Health Guide: For families with a migration background, the Health Guide to Switzerland is really useful. It explains the Swiss healthcare system in many languages.
  • ”I can also recommend the free Medscape platform. It has fascinating articles and the latest findings around health.”

Erika Ziltener, president of the umbrella association of Swiss patients’ organisations (DVSP): “Rating platforms should be taken with a pinch of salt.”

“Is Google a blessing or a curse for people looking for medical information? In my experience, it can leave people feeling much more anxious. The problem is that there’s no quality control. You can find good information, but you also come across a lot of nonsense or half-truths. It’s particularly difficult if you’re trying to find out about the quality of hospitals or doctors before having treatment.

In my opinion there has yet to be a single rating platform in this area that’s of any real use to laypeople. Given that people’s satisfaction with their doctor or treatment depends heavily on whether they were cured or not, these platforms should be taken with a pinch of salt. Naturally someone who gets better will be more satisfied.”

Tips:

  • Before treatment: Rather than consulting internet rankings or comparison portals, ask your trusted family doctor or a patients’ centre. The best rating portal is anq – although the information it provides is difficult for laypeople to understand. Your patients’ centre will be glad to help.
  • Many hospitals have produced really good checklists and fact sheets which you can download from their website or order in printed form.
  • Before a major procedure, make sure to get an independent second opinion from a doctor at another hospital. Make it clear that they will not subsequently be doing the procedure themselves.
  • Your own attitude: get information, look into it and ask questions. Work out whether the expected benefits of treatment will have a positive impact on your quality of life and justify the risks. Stay persistent and critical, talk to people, and take time to think things through. In other words, take charge of your own healthcare.