Dr. WebMD

As a paramedic, there are few things that I dislike more than walking into a patient’s house than when they definitively tell me, “I have {name your disease, usually an obscure one, of choice} and I need to go to the ER by ambulance right now.” I usually make a comment about how they seem exceedingly confident of this diagnosis and ask how they are so sure of this.

They always answer me so confidently: “Because WebMD said I have it and it says that I need to go to the ER right now!”

My first response to them is, “Well, I am so glad you have diagnosed yourself. Please get in your vehicle, drive yourself to the hospital, let the charge nurse know that you have this obscure disease that WebMD told you that you have and you will be seen…at some point this week. And since you’ve diagnosed yourself, why don’t you go ahead and start your own IV, determine your course of treatment and administer said treatment to yourself.”

Okay, so that’s not really what I say. But it’s what I want to say.

As much as I love WebMD, I hate WebMD. Allow me to share with you some of the wonderful positives of that website…and then some of the problems that come from it that I have run into.

Drugs and Supplements List :: WebMD has an extensive list of medications and supplements that is a great resource, even for me! (I actually think this is the best resource from this website.) I use it all the time to learn about new medications that my patients are taking. You can search for medications by their name, either brand or generic (like metoprolol or Zofran) or by medical condition (like asthma or high blood pressure).

Once you find the medication you want (we’ll use Zofran for this example), it asks you to narrow down your choices. 

As you can see, the search for “Zofran,” returned 5 results. (You can also see that the search shows you both the brand name and the generic so you can be double-sure that you have the correct medication if you weren’t to begin with.) In order to get the most accurate information on the medication (particularly when it comes to dosing), you need to select the correct medication that you have been given. Because this is one of the two most commonly given for home use, I’m going to select the third option, “Zofran Oral” for this demonstration. When you click on that, it will lead you to another screen where you have a wealth of information about the medication.

It’s too much information to show, so this is what you get. Every medication will have these sections: uses, side effects, precautions, interactions and overdose. Under each heading is some information that is contained in that little packet that you get with you bottle of medicine that most people never read. There’s also that “Important Note” underneath the main Zofran heading in the gray text that I think is missed by a lot of people. (Please call your doctor or pharmacist before EMS unless you are having a big problem with the medicine. We won’t tell you to stop taking it or adjust your dose. All we’ll do is cart you to the hospital where the ER doctor may do that but will tell you to follow up with your primary care doctor.)

Pill Identification :: I greatly dislike when I ask to see a patient’s medications and they hand me one of these:

I don’t have a magical brain that can decipher the difference between these pills:

That blue and white one could be a vitamin or it could be a blood pressure pill…but what blood pressure pill? Hydrochlorothiazide (HTCZ), atenolol, lisinopril, nicardipine, carvedilol — or their brand name? (The brand name drug can look different from the generic!) And that red one could be for your cholesterol. Problem is that there are dozens of medicines that control your cholesterol. (Amlodipine, atorvastatin, lovastatin, niacin and simvastatin, just to name a few.) And don’t get me started on the rest of them! (Additionally, “heart pill” and “blood pressure pill” don’t mean anything to me. But that’s a different story.) But…if I had time to sit and figure out all of the medicines, there’s an app for that! (There is. But that’s not the point of this post.) WebMD has a function where you can input some specific points and you can figure out what mystery medication you have sitting in front of you.

The more points you put in, the more you will be able to narrow it down. Now, I found a little pink pill on the floor that I want to identify so I’m going to input the information in here and see what we come up with. (And, no, I don’t really have pills just laying around on the floor…)

Alright, now that everything is entered, hit the “get started” button and see what you’ve got. Here were my results:

There were 5 results for this particular search and they were all diphenhydramine tablets…Benadryl. It gives you all of the information about the medication and allows you to double-check and make sure you have the correct medication. As you can see, it even gives you what should be imprinted on each side of the tablet. You can also jump to the headings that you saw earlier from the drugs and supplements search (uses, side effects, precautions, etc).

Healthy A to Z Guides :: This is a powerful resource for people who have been diagnosed with a disease, are undergoing a medical procedure or those who need some first aid advice. When I say “powerful,” I want to make note that this is a power that can be used for good…or bad. Knowledge is power but that can quickly get out of hand when someone starts chronically worrying with all of the knowledge that they have.

To get to this helpful section, you can click on the “Health A-Z” link in the menu bar at the top of the screen:

Once there, on the left side of the screen, there is a navigational bar that will guide you to any number of different topics that you could want to view:

Looking under the Community A-Z tab, you can find a variety of topics that you can ask questions about and learn more about from experts in the field and those who are also in your shoes. They have topics ranging from allergies to cancer to knee and hip replacements to parenting to sleep disorders and many other topics. You are very likely to find someone out there with a similar experience who can lend support or encouragement or an expert in the field who can provide advice.

Looking under the Medical Tests and Tools A-Z tab, you can find an extensive list of tests that your doctor might order for you or a loved one. Here, you can learn more about the tests, why it might be ordered and why it is done, how to prepare for the test, how it is done, how the test feels, risks involved, things to keep in mind after the test, what the results may mean (though you need to make sure that you discuss those with your doctor and not rely on a diagnosis from Dr. WebMD) and things that may affect the test outcome. Some of the tests that WebMD lists are an angiogram, DEXA scan, liver biopsy, paracentesis and tonometry, just to name a few.

The tools section of the Medical Tests and Tools A-Z tab is also a very handy area. It is comprised of evaluations, interactives and illustrations for you, the exceptionally curious person, to look through and participate in. These are divided out, not by name as with the tests, but by the category under which they fall into. For example, if you wanted to look at an interactive for portion size guidelines, you would find that under the “Diet and Nutrition” section. If you wanted to look at a smoking costs calculator, you would find that under the “Smoking Cessation” section.

Parenting and Pregnancy :: No, this is not a section that my husband and I need just yet, but perhaps it will come in handy one day. In looking through it, it seems to have some very helpful things, especially for new parents (the first-timers for each age bracket). You can access the page by clicking on Pregnancy and Parenting from the same menu bar that you accessed Health A-Z. Once there, this is the image I was greeted with:

Here, you are able to click through each age group and find a few select topics that may be of particular interest to you at that age. For example, in the “Baby: 0-1 year” age group, one of the articles that they had up was Napping Dos and Don’ts. Even for me, the psychology major who studied children, some of this was interesting to me…but certainly made sense. And to an exhausted new mother or father, this may be the thing they need to help them and their baby get some needed sleep. With the “Preschooler: 3-5 years” age group, there is an interesting article about Your Preschooler’s Emotional Development. A lot of these things you will see develop as parents, but it’s sometimes nice to know ahead of time. The age groups go all the way up to teenagers, and each section provides a link where you can find “more {baby, toddler, preschooler, grade schooler, tween, teen} articles” which helps find specifically what you need in a tailored fashion.

 

WebMD is truly a wealth of information. And there’s so much more here than I have shared with you. It can be used as a great resource to help you when you need information and want to know more about what is going into your body or what the doctor wants to do to you (to help you, of course). It can be used to talk with other people going through the same or similar situations to get encouragement and talk about your struggles (and give some encouragement to others while you’re there!). It can be used as a fantastic resource for identifying medications that you mixed together (which is a no-no) and need to un-mix them. It’s also a great resource for parents and soon-to-be parents (you were on the child side of this thing last time — this whole “parent” side is a new experience to you and you’re just playing it by ear, really…just like you did as a kid). And there are other sections to give you great information as well.

But my caution to you as the user is this: use the knowledge you gain carefully. WebMD is not a diagnostic tool. It is simply a tool. It cannot tell you what you have. If you use their symptom checker, some things will tell you to seek emergency treatment immediately. Why? Some because you need it and some to cover them legally. I’m not telling you not to seek emergency medical treatment — but use this for what it’s meant to be used for.

And please don’t call 911 and tell your paramedic that you diagnosed yourself using WebMD.

I am not discouraging the use of your 911 system for emergencies, or perceived emergencies. If you have a life-threatening emergency, please dial 911 before getting on WebMD to diagnose yourself. Let the professionals do that.

  • Kate

    Hi Jon & Suze! I’m Kate, a producer at HuffPost Live. Loved your post on WebMD! Would either of you be available to join our live conversation on the issue tomorrow at 5pm/et? If so, please shoot me an email: kate.balch@huffingtonpost.com