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Beware the net 'doctors'

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 10:16 UK time, Thursday, 4 August 2011

Health has recently been given a big push on television. Channel 4 has been bringing the nation's health concerns to mainstream television with the series Embarrassing Bodies simultaneously educating and - for want of a better phrase - grossing out its viewers. The BBC has tended to look at things a little more clinically with Inside the Human Body taking us, well, inside the human body, with cameras and high-tech equipment showing just what happens at certain stages of life and as a result of various diseases. Such programmes may throw viewers health concerns they hadn't previously considered and so before heading to their local doctor, the internet seems the first obvious port of call for finding out more. There are many online resources out there that can help put our minds at rest over certain ailments, as well as offering guidance and support. But what risks do we face when we take our health worries into our own hands?

There are many scenarios where one turns to the web for information on a health issue. At one end of the scale, one might wish to check the recommended dosage for ibuprofen in the case of a headache, whilst on the other end one might be searching for trial cures for serious diseases, or looking for help and support to cope with them. The internet can provide a confidential arena to research sensitive health issues, but despite the abundance of information available it's vital that we remember to seek help from the correct, professional, channels.

Often, searching an issue online stems from curiosity, or a 'just in case' attitude. Say, a strange spot appears somewhere or you can't find an explanation for a specific ailment on an official website. As tempting as it is to search 'is x serious?' or 'how do I treat a suspected infection of y', such queries can throw back numerous question and answer pages, full of horror stories. Getting caught up in such stories can lead to self-diagnosing and seeking out specific treatments - before having even visited the doctor. It's essential to bear in mind that just because someone provides an answer, it doesn't make them an expert. Often those giving advice online are your average Joe or Joanna without any medical experience to speak of. Some corners of the internet are there to scare users and sell them 'cures' with fake success stories so when it comes to health, it's advisable to first speak to your GP or go to the NHS Direct website.

The NHS website has lots of information on the nearest hospital, GP and out-of-hours clinics, as well a large number of resources on basic health problems and standard treatments, such as how to dress a wound or tell the difference between, for example, flu and meningitis. The BBC Health website is also a great resource for basic health and wellbeing information and has a comprehensive guide to First Aid. The best health websites won't try to sell you anything, nor diagnose you without a face-to-face examination. Online diagnoses are very rarely given from any medical organisation worth its salt. Even on the NHS Direct site - which gives advice based on a patient's symptoms - if there is an ounce of doubt, the user is advised to see their GP or go straight to hospital.

But away from horror stories, online forums can provide a great deal of comfort to many people coping - or helping loved ones cope - with illnesses. Charities like Macmillan and Diabetes Support have online communities where members can share their experiences and offer each other support. These message boards allow people to feel like they can talk about their experiences while still logging on from the privacy of their own home. Although these boards are often moderated, as a rule of thumb, if any members offer advice that you have to pay for or prescribe you drugs or miracle cures, it's best to steer clear.

Trusted medical sites on the internet provide fantastic support and information, but as convenient as they can be, when it comes to specific advice, avoid self-diagnosing and getting caught up in supposedly true horror stories and always speak to a medical professional.

Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.

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