The internet—friend or foe?

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 15 January 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:133
  1. J Bentham, specialist registrar in paediatrics,
  2. P Todd, consultant paediatrician
  1. Arrowe Park Hospital, Upton, Wirral

    Most of us feel at least a little apprehensive when a patient or parent begins: “I was looking on the internet, and I found…” Experience has shown that information fished from cyberspace has often been inaccurate or alarmist, but one recent patient challenged our scepticism. What follows is a mother's account of a correct internet diagnosis.

    “I was worried about Andrew's thirst and couldn't understand how he could consume so much liquid, so I used the Google search engine and typed in the query ‘extreme thirst in children.' The search returned a list of websites all mentioning diabetes, so I clicked on the first link, I knew Andrew had lost weight, he was weeing a lot, and was very tired and weak, so he had some but not all of the signs of diabetes mentioned on the site.

    “So I ran another Google search: ‘signs of diabetes.' This gave me a great website,, which had a free screening tool for diabetes. Andrew's score came back at 60, which is very high. This was in spite of my not having answers to all the questions, such as whether his eyesight was blurred. At 14 months, he couldn't tell me, so I answered no. The site advised me to seek urgent medical advice. The last sign mentioned was a high sugar content in the child's wee, for which it said a glucose stick could be bought over the counter at a chemist's.

    “By now I was starting to worry that he was very ill, but I was I was still afraid the doctor may think I was over-reacting, so I went ahead and bought the test. The results were the darkest colour on the stick, which meant a high level of sugar. Armed with my evidence, I went to the doctor's surgery, where he agreed with the diagnosis. After performing another test with a ‘keto stick,' he sent us up to the hospital.”

    As paediatricians, we are quite used to childhood diabetes being diagnosed by a relative or friend of the family, and even once by a 9 year old friend with type 1 diabetes. However, the internet as a tool for self diagnosis is surely something we will become increasingly familiar with and could perhaps even encourage.

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