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Riskfactorphobese should take good heed of a new report by private health company Bupa. The trend for self-diagnosis using health websites is apparently fostering an increase in hypochondria – something many riskfactorphobes know a little too much about than is good for them. And now researchers from the London School of Economics – who carried out the research on Bupa’s behalf – claim some of the health information available on the net is dodgy, to say the least.

The Bupa Health Pulse Survey quizzed around 12,000 people worldwide, 81 percent of whom admitted they surfed the net for advice on health, medicines and medical conditions. That includes 73 percent of the British people surveyed, 58 percent of whom use the net to diagnose their own health problems. Now you can see that’s not going to be popular with an organisation like Bupa. But I digress…

Being a health journalist I know only too well what they’re talking about. The quality of some of the information out there is appalling. You’ve just got to know which sites are well-respected enough to trust – for instance, NHS Choices is always one of my first ports of call when I’m researching a health subject. Bupa‘s own website is always worth looking at too and obviously very well respected. And of course there are many others. But then being a health journalist, I should know which websites to trust – and which to have a bit of a giggle at.

Back to the survey, however. In the report in today’s Telegraph, some of the anomalies between different websites are pointed out – and it makes very interesting (perhaps that should be horrifying) reading. One of the examples was pins and needles which, according to one website is caused by a vitamin B12 deficiency, while another claims it’s a symptom of sciatica and a third suggests it signals multiple sclerosis. It’s a bit of a coincidence because I had Googled pins and needles myself last year, and yes I saw the various different suggestions too, eventually picking carpal tunnel syndrome as the most likely culprit. Then to be fair, most of the websites I looked at (and I’m not just talking about the trustworthy ones) gave a range of suggestions – the way it’s worded in The Telegraph suggests that some websites suggest pins and needles are a symptom of MS and nothing else, and so on. Of course I can’t be clear on whether or not that’s how the report puts it, as I haven’t seen a copy yet.

As Dr Annabel Bentley, Bupa medical director, says, it is a worry that there’s so much unreliable information about health out there. Does anyone know whether it’s killed anyone yet though? There again, if you’re riskfactorphobic, it could well worry you to death.

I’ll end with the words a spokesperson for the British Medical Association added to the Telegraph story: “The internet can be a fantastic source of health information,” they said. “But it does need to be used very selectively.”

Wise advice.