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Medical monday: Don’t let medical misinformation impact your health

Lindsey Reznicek
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

These days, when a symptom or health-related concern pops up, the internet is oftentimes the first place people turn.

“It said on the internet that it could be a …”

“I Googled it and found out …”



But that’s not always a great idea.

“While yes, there is a lot of good information from reputable resources to be found online, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to health topics,” said Dr. Michelle Jimerson, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “There are a number of things to take into consideration.”



Source of information

One of the first things to consider is where the health information is coming from.

“Are you looking at the first option that pops up, or are you seeking out a reputable resource?” said Jimerson. “Just because something comes up at the top of the search doesn’t mean it’s the best or most accurate information.”

When searching online, Jimerson recommends consulting public health entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health, academic medical schools or professional medical organizations like the American Academy of Family Physicians that are reliable, evidence-based sources of medical information.

“You want information from people doing research, who are using science to guide the recommendations they’re making,” said Jimerson.

Symptom questionnaires

While health questionnaires and surveys may be helpful — there were a number of them developed to determine whether testing for COVID-19 was indicated based on a person’s symptoms, they’re not the same as having a conversation with a medical provider.

“It’s important to remember that there’s a bot, or software program that runs automated tasks, behind these tools,” said Jimerson. “With symptom checkers, they’re programmed to respond to ‘if this, then that’ type questions. They allow you to possibly rule out a few things, but they don’t provide a complete picture of the symptom or illness.”

For example, while a symptom checker may ask about congestion, a medical provider will ask about congestion in more detail, such as the consistency and color of the mucus, where is the congestion located, has it increased over time, and so on.

Self-diagnosing

The body can exhibit countless symptoms, and because of that, the list of possible diagnoses is quite extensive.

“Symptoms can mean a lot of different things, and it can be scary if the symptom shows up online as something more severe than it really is,” said Jimerson. “If people know they tend to worry or become anxious, ‘internet doctoring’ and jumping to the worst possible scenario can provoke those feelings.”

Take a headache. For one person, it might indicate a brain tumor, but for the vast majority of the population it doesn’t indicate cancer.

“The headache could be due to stress or dehydration or that the patient missed a dose of medication,” said Jimerson. “There’s a saying, ‘When you see hoof prints, think horse, not zebra.’ The majority of symptoms lead us to horses, but every once in a while, the symptom can lead us to a zebra. Don’t jump to conclusions until you’ve followed up with your medical provider who knows your medical history and current health situation.”

Seeking care

Instead of diagnosing symptoms via the internet, there are a number of other ways to communicate with and seek care from medical professionals.

“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen a significant increase in use of online patient portals,” said Jimerson. “It’s a great way to communicate for one or two questions. But it’s like texting — once you go back and forth a couple times, sometimes it’s easier to pick up the phone to speak to a nurse or make an appointment with your provider.”

A quick conversation with a nurse can also determine whether you should schedule an appointment — be it via telemedicine or in person.

“While a patient may present due to one symptom, so much of any diagnosis lies in the patient’s history, a physical exam, possibly blood work or imaging — no bot or internet search will know those aspects,” said Jimerson. “The medical relationships we build over time with our patients allow us to know them, which in turn allows us to deliver the care they need.”

Lindsey Reznicek is a communications strategist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at lindsey.reznicek@uchealth.org.

Reputable resources

Dr. Michelle Jimerson recommends the following websites for accurate, trustworthy information about various medical conditions:

• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov

• Trusted medical advice from the American Academy of Family Physicians, http://www.familydoctor.org

• Harvard Health Publishing, the consumer health education division of Harvard Medical School, http://www.health.harvard.edu

• National Institutes of Health, http://www.nih.gov


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