The dangers of ‘doing your own research’

Most of us at some stage or another would have turned to ‘Dr Google’ in the misguided hope of diagnosing or treating a medical issue we were dealing with.

And in some instances, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – Better Health Victoria states that “educating yourself about your health issues or medical conditions is an important part of managing your health.”

However, given the huge amount of inaccurate information online, people can easily become misinformed — one eyebrow-raising example is the idea that eating apricot or cherry seeds can cure cancer (spoiler alert — they don’t).

So there are downsides to doing your own research — misinformation can be extremely difficult to spot. Our health is something we should take seriously, so it’s important to trust the experts.

Healthy Male CEO Simon von Saldern believes the phenomenon of ‘Dr Google’ — the habit of searching Google for answers before, or instead of, seeking professional medical advice — can prevent men from getting the help they need.

“A lot of things have similar symptoms — for example a guy could be really hurting when he goes to the toilet. He could have kidney stones or a urinary tract infection or a bunch of other things. And you're not going to know what it is unless you go and get some tests,” he says.

“Dr. Google's not going to be helpful.”

Learn who to trust, and look at the fine print

Von Saldern added if people were determined to research health issues online, they should go directly to trusted, official and specialised sources of information.

“Be careful where you get your information from; if you suddenly become worried about your risk of having a stroke, you should go to somewhere like the Stroke Foundation that actually has the proper evidence and has the proper professionals. And if you're worried about your heart health, you go to the Heart Foundation site,” he says.

Better Health Victoria agrees, adding there are important things to think about when looking at non-official sources, including:

  • The source of the information: understand who is providing or endorsing the content. The ‘About us’ page will tell you who runs the site – it may be a legitimate health organisation or an individual (such as someone who has had experience with the illness and wants to share what they have learned)
  • Quality control measures: does the site have an editorial board? Is the information reviewed by qualified experts before it is posted? This information should be available on the ‘About us’ page or somewhere similar
  • A level of scepticism about online health products: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Does it promise quick and easy results? Words like ‘secret ingredient’ should raise suspicions. If the provider is serious, they will be open about their products. Check if their claims are endorsed on more than one reliable website
  • What is the evidence? Look for reputable medical research to back up claims. Do not trust testimonials from people you do not know — they may have been paid for their endorsement (or given free products or services)
  • Is the information up to date? Check the date the information was posted or when the site was last updated (this is usually available at the bottom of the screen)
  • Beware of bias – who is funding the website? What is its purpose? If the site is funded by a company that only recommends its own products, take this into consideration. Check if it has a particular philosophical bias that influences its advice
  • Is your privacy protected? Health information should be confidential. Beware of websites that ask for private information or share your details with others without your permission. Most reputable sites publish their privacy policy on the site.

What about those new digital health platforms for embarrassing issues?

Recently, there has been a rise in digital health platforms that target men who may be dealing with sensitive issues like sexual difficulties. These services allow you to avoid the embarrassment of discussing these uncomfortable issues face-to-face and may even send medications to your door, but that doesn't mean it's your best option. 

Better Health Victoria states: “Beware of medical information provided by organisations trying to sell a particular product or service – information written to sell products or services is not medical advice.”

Instead of this, von Saldern says men should look to build a strong relationship with a GP and other medical professionals, and/or access trusted digital services like Telehealth, e-scripts and Nurse on Call

“It is important to start building a relationship with your GP and other medical professionals. You might not even go there often (after your first in-person appointment) — you can just use them for Telehealth for now but at least they've got all your records in the one spot.

“Because when something happens, you don't have to stress about ‘where do I go?’ or ‘what do I do’? 

“Things like Telehealth or using e-scripts are really helpful if you can’t, or don’t want to, go there face-to-face.”

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