Online health checks
Self-diagnosis websites and online health checkers have been generating a huge amount of revenue for their owners over the last decade, and consequently many health professionals look upon them with some disdain.
"There's a litany of websites that quite simply promote misleading and ill-informed diagnoses," states Dr Frasier Bruton, a leading UK academic and practising GP who contributes to medical health titles including Pulse and the British Medical Journal.
Bruton's research has specialised in the phenomenon of self-diagnosis via the Internet, and his findings are backed up by GPs the country over.
"Within the last six years, GPs in general have found an increase in the number of patients making appointments due to self-diagnosed conditions," he says. "Although this element is purely anecdotal, a 2005 questionnaire found that 70 per cent of UK GPs had patients booking appointments after self-diagnosis.
"Rather than appointments being made to find out what's wrong and deal with the problem, more patients are saying things like, 'I have gastroenteritis and I need a course of antibiotics,' when in fact they have an upset tummy. In simple terms it's a huge waste of a GP's time and resources, and on a greater scale it has an emotional and psychological impact on the patient.
"The kinds of medical situations that would best benefit from new technologies are almost exclusively available to only the tech-savvy few," Bruton adds sceptically. "Doctors with access to webcams are a great idea in principle, but the people to whom such access would be of the greatest benefit – the poor or elderly – simply don't have the facilities to make use of such features."
Bruton's advice is simple. Consult online for consumer advice rather than a professional diagnosis. The more people who know how to examine themselves for breast or testicular cancer the better, but checking and diagnosing are two separate issues, according to Bruton. "I've seen websites in the US that have downloadable melatonin charts for people to self-diagnose potentially cancerous moles and sun spots. That's not just irresponsible – it's immoral."
Diagnosing a medical problem should be the role of qualified health professionals, and most of us would still turn to our doctor first rather than a website. But what about our general health, whether it's getting in shape or losing a few pounds after Christmas?
Developers such as Cyser have already tied the huge health and fitness market to the PC. Cyser's Fitday website and supporting software is just one example of the myriad dieting and fitness facilities available. In Fitday's case, the online calendar sets personal goals and offers general health tips while the software gives personalised dietary advice, sets exercise goals and can import data from heart-rate monitors to assess the calorie-burning potential of your exercise regime.
The world-renowned WeightWatchers program has a website in a similar vein. It has an extremely active online community and features support forums, 'tips of the day' and meal plans as well as personal weight programs that are produced from the data that you feed it.
Losing weight and staying it has always been a growth industry – after a fashion – and hundreds of personal trainers and health clubs now offer bespoke online support.
Matt Roberts is a leading personal trainer and author who has moved his business model almost entirely online. Rather than running a traditional consultation and program, Roberts now offers a full online training regime and support environment.
Members of Roberts' community complete a personal assessment that Roberts overlooks before providing a tailored fitness regime that's constantly updated as fitness and health improve and training goals change. The system even has integrated SMS support to jolt everybody into action when training day rolls around.