Experts warn against self-diagnosis on internet

By Jarrod Booker

A growing trend for people to self-diagnose and self-medicate their health conditions using the internet has medical experts sounding a warning.

They are urging people to treat information they get on the internet with scepticism, and one expert is calling for a "trusted central portal" to be established so people can at least be directed to proper health information.

A public lecture in Christchurch tonight will address advances in using the internet to teach medical students, but the average person's use of it is becoming a bigger issue.

While public information should never be filtered, pharmacologist Professor Evan Begg said a lot of the health information on the internet was wrong or biased.

"By definition stuff that comes from drug companies is biased. As medical professionals we despair a bit about people having too strong an idea about what they have read on the net," Dr Begg said.

"They are doing it from their own position of health and emotion, which means they tend to take out of what's on the net whatever they are really looking for."

When people then bought drugs over the internet, the risks were high because "if you get the diagnosis wrong, any drug that you are giving is the wrong drug".

"They can order stuff on the web, and I don't know why they are allowed to legally import stuff which is prescription-only in New Zealand. I don't know why the Government allows that."

People who suffered ill effects from the drugs were also less likely to "fess up" to health professionals about buying them over the internet.

Professor Les Toop, of the University of Otago, said that while people accessing the internet could find helpful information, too often it was driven by someone trying to make a buck.

"You create the demand by making people feel they are unwell when they weren't, and persuading them there is a good treatment for it and separating them from their money."

New Zealand needed some "trusted, independent consumer health information available on the web".

"Preferably through a central portal that allows people to find trusted information. As opposed to just typing in Google and seeing what comes up."

Treatments suggested on the internet for any particular health problem ranged widely.

"Some of the conditions don't even exist. The elderly feel bad if they aren't taking three different kinds of pill because they must be doing something wrong."

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