Anderson Cooper’s Twitter followers diagnose bronchitis

Yesterday, Anderson Cooper asked his 1.5 million Twitter followers for advice about bronchitis.

How do you know if you have bronchitis?, Cooper Tweeted.

Even some of his followers seem to think turning to the little blue bird in the cloud for health advice was not the best idea:

When a doctor says “You have bronchitis”. Usually. Not always.

I generally just go with the opinion of a million and a half strangers.

I feel like @andersoncooper has health insurance.

Health experts have studied the rise of Google and at-your-fingertips health information for years. In a 2009 article for the Washington Post about the misleading tendency of online symptom search, Dr. Eric Horvitz said:

We now see [the Internet] as a general oracle, in our pockets and desktops, that we can just ask questions to, and people think it’s going to answer all questions in a quality manner; therefore, people turn to the system and say, ‘Diagnose me; here are the symptoms.’

If obsessive late-night symptom Googling has made hypochondriacs of us all — apt to think that charley horse in our leg is as likely to be dengue fever or thrombosis as it is to be dehydration or an exercise strain — it has also proven that there are credible resources out there that can make us more informed, educated and aware, like Medline Plus and the National Institutes of Health.

And I don’t know about you, but as someone who’s kind of a hypochondriac anyway, the blue light of Google has helped me get to sleep after waking up convinced that I was suffering from some exotic and life-threatening emergency.

But separating reliable from not-so-reliable information can be so tricky. And when you turn to the crowd — Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo Answers, Metafilter — how can you reasonably evaluate the advice you get? What do you do when someone suggests homeopathic remedies (someone on Twitter suggested that Anderson Cooper treat his symptoms with oregano oil) or anecdotal evidence (“I had the same thing, it turned out to be mono”)?

Confusion and misinformation can spread as quickly as any cold or flu.

And what if there is a real emergency at hand? The crowd and the cloud provide a never-ending font of second opinions. Will you be caught in that web, searching for the Perfect Answer, before you seek help?

We know there are times to dive into the deep well of human knowledge and experience available on the internet, even for health information. But when it comes to self-diagnosis, you might be better off with a concise, medically-reviewed self-care book, a nurse advice line, or an old-fashioned visit to your primary care physician.

Common sense, right? And let’s face it: haven’t we all been symptom searchers? I do it compulsively, guiltily and surreptitiously. It still makes me feel better. But I know it’s no replacement for actually calling my doctor.

Especially when I think it might be serious. Serious like bronchitis.

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