Should Ordinary People Give Medical Advice Online?

Wow is all I can say. When I came across this discussion on MetaTalk, the discussion site for an old community blogging site called MetaFilter, I was taken aback.

The discussion is about how “wrong” the people who responded to a request for opinions and advice about a mental health issue were. The post was written by a physician, naturally, who suggested there should be greater caution in people offering their opinions (and even diagnoses) on medical or mental health issues where they don’t have a full and complete history.

Now, of course, on the face of it, this makes common sense. Nobody, not even doctors, like to go around offering their opinions about things on the basis of little information. But sometimes that’s all we have to go on, and people just want some ideas.

I don’t honestly think that at the end of 2007, anybody goes on to any “Ask” or Q&A site asking about a professional concern (whether it be medical, mental health, legal, plumbing, electrical, relationships, career, etc.) and not know that a lot of the responses they will receive will be non-professional and “from my own personal experience.” That’s one of the joys of Web 2.0 — everyone can be and often is an expert.

Some communities, like Yahoo Answers, have built-in tools to help readers rate answers they feel best capture a legitimate and useful answer to the question posed. It is these kinds of tools, and not disclaimers or efforts to clamp down on answering mental health or medical advice questions, that are the future. Because people will always ask such questions, it’s just a question of where they do it and whether such an environment can provide tools or options to make it a good, safe environment.

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