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Self diagnosis or general practitioner?

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Is it a rare and dangerous disease or something as simple as the common cold?

Some may ask themselves a question like this after hours of late-night symptom searching. Although health experts say the Internet can be a great resource to take charge of personal health, they also caution people to stay realistic and avoid the immediate urge to jump to the worst possible conclusion. 

"Sometimes you can read something that seems to fit in a general sense of what the symptoms are. It's a syndrome of what we talk about in med school where you have a disease that you're reading about or learning about. It's an empathetic issue and it happens occasionally," said Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, and a physician administrator at Charleston Area Medical Center.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department agreed and cautioned people not to act as their own doctor all the time.  

 "It does scare people often. They go in thinking, ‘Why am I having fatigue or fever? Should I be losing weight? They go and think, ‘It's cancer, cancer, cancer.' It's very important that a physician or clinician has that background information and can put that information in context," Gupta said.

That doesn't mean that people should never use the Internet for health guidance, however. In fact, both Foster and Gupta agreed that some of their favorite patients are those who do research and stay prepared.

In response to a Facebook question, three West Virginia residents said they will consult the Internet before visiting a doctor. 

Athens resident Garrett Lester said he does both.

"I'll research online before and after visiting the doctor," he wrote. "I'm a college kid. I know people who go to school for as long as eight years can still make mistakes (Go Professors), but I also know they know their field better than I do."

David Sibray of Charleston said he is "far more likely to rush to the Internet first."

"It's a minefield of quackery, but every self-diagnosis I've arrived at was spot-on, and my physician has voiced his appreciation every time I've turned up in his office with the information in hand," he wrote.  

Another Charleston resident, Angela Cannon, said she also goes to the Internet if she notices strange symptoms.

"I notice things that are different, look up the symptoms on the Internet and only go to the GP when my most likely outcome is something I haven't had before (extreme examples include death or diabetes)," she wrote.

And these three are not alone.

According to a Nov. 13 article from Pew Internet & American Life Project, 80 percent of Internet users – or 59 percent of U.S. adults – head to the Internet for health information.

"This is based on a September 2010 survey, but it is a remarkably stable trend dating back to 2002," the article says.

The most commonly researched subjects, the article says, are "specific diseases or conditions,treatments or procedures and doctors or other health professionals."

Another survey, conducted by Pearl.com, found 63 percent of U.S. adults look online for topics such as sex and STDs.

Conducted by Wakefield Research, the study surveyed 1,000 adults 18 and older between Sept. 21 and Sept. 28.

"Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents have avoided going to a doctor in favor of searching online for medical information on at least one occasion," the Nov. 12 news release states.

The top three reasons, the site states, are insurance concerns, embarrassment and the fear of discovering a pre-existing condition.

However, patients who do come prepared are some of Gupta's and Foster's favorites.

"Some of the best patients of mine are the ones who come prepared," Gupta said. "At the same time, people can use the information out there to have a frank and fruitful discussion with their providers. They don't need to self-diagnose. They can use the information to have a really engaging discussion and advance their knowledge of their own disease process."

Gupta said he likes patients who stay active in disease management. As an example, Gupta said it's better for the patient if they look for ways to reduce high cholesterol and take charge of their life.

He cautions people to not completely replace their general practitioner, however, especially when it comes to getting regular screenings. 

"Don't wait to have chest pain or figure out why it feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest. It's much better to have your primary care provider to test your cholesterol, manage your cholesterol, get physical activity and appropriate exercise … to avoid that bad symptom and bad outcome from happening."

But don't become paranoid.

"If I woke up with a cough for the first time today and it's pollen season outside. … use common sense. You don't need to go to the web to figure that out," Gupta said

Foster said he thinks health care should be a mutual effort

"Physicians like that people feel more engaged in their health. Ideally, it should be a mutual effort," he said.

And in the future, Foster envisions the web becoming a bigger part in health care.

"There will be a lot more consultation by email," he said. "There will be actual telemedicine, Skype or technology that is interactive. … Maybe telemedicine with a smartphone. It's something they can use in smaller hospitals or nursing homes where they don't have the same level of physician coverage. They will be able to get that more expeditiously. … These are the sorts of things that will help control health care costs and if done right, people can get great care."