29 June 2016 07:00:17

'Cyberchondria': self-diagnosis and self-help

The internet can be your medical friend. All doctors are keen on informed patients, but anyone can make any claim on the internet, and some of it is dangerous nonsense.

The internet has made 'experts' of us all. All doctors are keen on informed patients, but anyone can make any claim on the internet, and some of it is dangerous nonsense. By all means learn more about your condition, but let your doctor do their job.

Online helping hands

If you go online for health information, stick to reliable sources of information like patient.info. Your GP may be able to recommend good websites for your condition too

The internet can be your medical friend. Many practices in the UK have websites where you can book appointments or order repeat prescriptions.

Why early detection matters

When I became a GP, the internet wasn't invented. Even for the first few years after it came along, I didn't know how to use it - and neither did most of my patients. Of course, most of us see it as a mixed blessing, and that's certainly true for doctors. It means I can print out full information for my patients on thousands of conditions at the touch of a button. But it's also led to a flood of worried patients with 'cyberchondria' - hypochondria brought on by too much self-diagnosis on the internet.

Sadly, all too often when people do have symptoms they bury their heads in the sand for fear of getting bad news. But it's crucial to remember that if there is something serious, your chances of full recovery are much better if you get diagnosis and treatment early. What's more, treatment is often much less invasive and challenging at an early stage. For instance, breast cancers picked up by screening are more likely to be curable just by removing the lump than the whole breast. And early bowel tumours can often be treated with relatively minor surgery, rather than taking out much of the intestine and having heavy-duty chemotherapy.

Bleeding from the bottom is a case in point. Bright blood on the paper or in the pan, perhaps after a bout of constipation or with pain when you open your bowels, is usually caused by piles. These often don't need treatment and increasing the fibre in your diet cuts your chance of future problems. Dark red blood mixed in with the stool, or a change to looser or more frequent stools (or being off your food, losing weight for no reason and feeling tired) could be a sign of bowel cancer. But if you have bleeding from the bottom for the first time, it's always important to get it checked out. Very rarely, a tumour just inside the bottom could cause similar symptoms to piles, and relying on self-diagnosis could lead to dangerous delay.

Don't forget your pharmacy!

If you're worried about bothering the doctor, or find it hard to get an appointment, try your pharmacist in the first instance. They can be a mine of information and will tell you if you need to see a doctor.

Questions your doctor is likely to ask

If you do see your doctor, there are lots of questions you can have answers ready for which will help. For instance:

- How long have you had the pain/swelling/breathlessness?

- What makes it better or worse?

- Does the pain go anywhere else?

- Other symptoms you've noticed around the same period

- If you've started new medication (including non-prescription tablets) recently

- If close contacts have had similar symptoms

Do expect to be examined and dress accordingly - you have no idea how often I see patients with an intimate problem who seem shocked when I say I need to take a look! And if you think you might need to be examined, try not to attend with young kids in tow - explaining what's going on behind the curtain can be embarrassing.

More tips to make the most of your appointment:

· If you've had symptoms for a while, write down when they started before your appointment. Likewise, if you're having any gynaecological problems, write down details of your last period, the length of your cycle etc. It may sound obvious, but at least half my patients promptly start rummaging around in their diaries when I ask

· If you have a tooth problem, please don't come to see me. Doctors are not dentists - dentists are dentists. I know no more about dental problems than you do, but it doesn't stop many patients.

· If you have any urine symptom, always bring a sample - you can get a specimen bottle from the GP reception.

· Finally, don't save all your problems up and bring a list to a 10-minute consultation. If you have several problems, ask the receptionist if you can book a double appointment. Your doctor and you will both feel less rushed - and you're more likely to get all the answers you need.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' where this article was originally published.

Dr Sarah is unable to provide medical advice or respond directly to questions concerning your health. If you have health concerns we recommend contacting your GP.