Maybe you've noticed a strange spot on your skin, or you're feeling more listless than usual. Maybe you're considering surgery, but you're not sure which hospital excels at it. Maybe you've been prescribed medication, but aren't sure how to afford it.
Unless you've got a doctor at your beck and call, you've probably hit the Internet to look up your symptoms and look into treatment, whether it's webmd.com or another popular site.
But is that the right place to turn? Area experts say yes — if you know where to search.
"The Internet is a vast, vast resource," says Dr. Rajnish Mago, a psychiatrist and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Thomas Jefferson University. "But in order to use it, you need a map of some kind because it's an embarrassment of riches, so to speak.
"And if you don't have a recommendation, you could be wandering around the Internet and getting frustrated by misinformation, by lack of information."
Dr. Doron Schneider, chief safety and quality officer for Abington Memorial Hospital, echoes that sentiment.
"There's a lot of good stuff out there," the Israeli-born Schneider says. "You just need to know where to look for it and you need to avoid the bad."
Mago points patients to MedlinePlus.com, an exhaustive site established by the National Library of Medicine. It's not just one website, but a portal with more than 35,000 links to authoritative sources with information on just about every malady.
It's free and easy to search, with a medical dictionary, drug information and tutorials.
It's important, Mago says, for patients to proactively share the information they find online with their doctors. But he senses that many doctors remain reluctant to discuss any homework patients have done.
"The patients are eager — in my experience, at least — to talk about what they have read on the Internet, and the doctors are not," Mago says. "The doctors should, I believe, really ask patients, 'What have you read about this? What have you read about this?' "
But Schneider warns that both sides lose when patients and doctors spend their visit discussing misinformation.
"Every minute that's spent really defending one's reputation or defending data that is erroneous is time that's not spent in health promotion," Schneider says.
Mago says doctors shouldn't feel threatened by patients' research, or dismiss it out of hand. Doctors stand to benefit from it as well. After all, patients who know which websites to trust will know where to find answers to frequently asked questions, allowing busy doctors to spend less time on generalities and more time on patients' specific issues.
Mago was moved to prescribe websites after he saw how many patients were determined to do research on their own, with or without a doctor's blessing. He conducted an informal poll that found that more than 8 out of 10 people had researched depression on the Internet.
When asked who told them which sites to use, patients said no one had. Most often they cited Google.
He's astounded by this. "The Internet has changed everything," Mago says. "Everything we do in our personal lives has been improved and enhanced and modified by the Internet."