Are the impacts of the digital age healthy or not?

There is a growing trend in the way we use our digital resources for our health. How many times have you had an ache, pain or pinch and Googled it straight away? How many times have you logged your walking distance using your smartphone? How many times have you heard about a new app or a new website that can solve your health problems and help you to live a healthier and happier life? The truth is that the digital world has completely revolutionised the way we think about our health and this is both a wonderful and completely horrifying thing.

Last week a relative of mine had found an unusual rash developing on the back of her lower leg. She’s a beautiful cousin and she lives alone in a rural New South Wales town. Her first instinct was to Google her symptoms and within five minutes she was absolutely convinced she only had days to live. After a phone call and some rationalisation she visited her doctor who was able to diagnose her with a mild allergic reaction to the chemicals on the fabric of her new stockings – it could have been solved with a simple wash before wear – the cardinal rule of any new clothing!

Meanwhile, in the same week a new app was released by the CSIRO to help to monitor and support heart attack patients in their rehabilitation program. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the app and said that cardiovascular disease is Australia’s number one killer and one Australian dies almost every 12 minutes from a heart attack. This app has revolutionised rehabilitation programs as it has lifted patient compliance by nearly 30%.

We also have the apps that we use to keep us healthy – there are apps for calorie and exercise monitoring, weight management and diet, blood pressure, de-stressing, and physical examination check ups; there’s also an app to solve every single health concern or query we could possibly have.

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But how far is too far when we turn to technology for our health? When is it safe to rely on the digital world instead of seeking advice from professionals? BBC News published an article about the perceptions of UK health professionals towards health apps. One third of the physicians surveyed in a study carried out by Cello Health Insight said that their patients would arrive at clinics with a preconceived idea of what prescription they should receive based on their internet searches and fewer than 5% of these doctors felt that this was helpful.

So if we aren’t helping ourselves and we aren’t helping the doctors – why are we doing it?

Some health apps can be incredibly beneficial just like the CSIRO app. The Queensland Government also made suggestions about providing a health reminder app that sends alerts during the day reminding smartphone users to drink more water, check off their exercise and get the appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables.

But how can we distinguish between the digital help that is good and the digital advice that will do more harm than good?

For starters, apps and websites that have been sponsored or produced by credible sources like a government organisation, the CSIRO, a national health fund or reliable health outlets like not-for-profit organisations or community health companies, are more likely to be more valuable and have better accuracy of information and advice than most others.

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It is also important to note that if you’re provided with advice from any organisation or digital source instead of your regular physician, take it with a grain of salt and don’t rely on it solely. The only person we should really take medical or health advice from is our doctor.

And most importantly, stay away from online diagnosis. You can look for natural remedies on Google or perhaps stretches that could help with muscle pain but never look for a physical diagnosis online. Why? Because nine times out of ten, the result you get will be far more severe than the reality and you will send yourself into a head spin.

So be careful when it comes to looking for answers to your health problems in the digital world, because at the end of the day practical, reliable knowledge will always be the help that matters.

Have you got caught in the fun of using digital things for your health? What services do you use and are they reliable? Have you been caught in the self-diagnosis trap before? Tell us in the comments below…