4 Questions To Ask Before Sending Medical Advice on the Internet

One of the most common things that happens on social media and this blog because I’m so open about my health issues is that I am contacted at least once a week (if not more) by someone with a random treatment option for my arthritis. 99% of the time, this is someone who knows absolutely nothing about my health issues and clearly they know very little about autoimmune arthritis, as well. If you are one of those people who sends messages like that, this is for you. We need to talk about sending medical advice when you are not a medical professional who has examined whoever you’re talking to. Before you send some, ask yourself these four questions.

4 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Giving Unsolicited Medical Advice

First of all, how well do you know this person and their health issues? If you don’t know them at all, if you’ve never had a conversation with them, if you only know them from the Internet or you hardly know them, do not suggest any treatment. Especially do not suggest anything if you don’t know their health issue all that well. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times someone who only knows the surface of my health issues suggest that I treat a specific treatment. If you are a close friend or family member of the person you’re talking to, or if you have the same health issue, then it might be okay to talk about their health and the treatments they’ve tried. Might be. Everyone is different when it comes to this. 

Second, why do you feel the need to send this? Are you trying to sell them something? Stop. Don’t do it. My health problems are not your way to make money or get website traffic. Are you concerned that they’re not doing enough to feel better? Keep your opinions to yourself unless you are a part of the personal conversation about treatment options, which is something that must be initiated by the person with the health issue. You probably only know half of what is going and has gone on in their health journey. For example, when people other than the medical professionals I see suggest medical treatments to me, it is either something I have already tried and hasn’t worked or isn’t something that works for people with my very specific health problems. And that brings up something else – if you are not a medical professional who has examined the individual you’re talking to, you shouldn’t be suggesting treatment options unless they are asked for.

A Guide to Chronic Illness for Those Who Don’t Have One

Unless you are a medical professional asked for medical advice, you shouldn't send some to random people on the Internet. Click To Tweet

Third, how much do you know about whatever their health issue is? This is a bit trickier because you might think you know a lot when you actually don’t. But let’s break this down, using myself as an example because that’s less confusing than a hypothetical. If I talk about pain from my rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia and you want to comment for some reason, ask yourself how much you know about both of these conditions separately. When you see “rheumatoid arthritis,” do you know what that illness is? It’s incredibly different from osteoarthritis, by the way. When you see “fibromyalgia,” do you know what that illness is? If the only part of these two conditions you understand is “arthritis,” do some research before suggesting anything. Also, let’s say that you know a lot about these two conditions – what do you know about my personal health history? Have you read about how I’ve been in pain since fall 2001? Even if you have read all of these different posts about my health, you don’t know every single thing I’ve been through or tried to improve my health because I don’t share everything online. Why would you give medical advice that doesn’t apply? So before you send someone medical advice, ask yourself how much you know about their condition AND their personal health experience. Every patient is different.

Finally, do you understand what message this sends to the person you contacted? Let’s say you’re talking to someone you know – like a friend or coworker – and you ask, “Have you tried [insert random treatment here] to feel better?” In that case, you’re basically saying, “I don’t think you’re trying hard enough to feel better. If you really were, you’d try this treatment that I, a layperson with zero medical education, have suggested.” Because let me tell you something: one of the first things you do when you’re diagnosed is turn to Google to find out everything you can. And if you’re talking to someone who has been diagnosed for years and years, they know more about the treatments out there than you do. Let’s say that you’re talking to a stranger on the Internet and send a message saying, “Have you tried [insert random treatment here]?” Here you’re saying, “I don’t care enough to find out what you’ve tried or what your medical history is. However, if you don’t try what I’ve suggested, then you’re settling for a life of pain/health issues and all future health issues are your own fault.” (Fun fact, someone actually commented a blog post of mine saying that I’m settling for a life of pain because I’m not trying hard enough to get better. To say that I’m still livid over that is an understatement.) Messages and comments from people suggesting random treatments really upset me because, as you can see here, the moral for all of them is pretty much that I’m not trying hard enough to feel better. This is true for conventional medical treatments as well as alternative ones.

4 questions to ask yourself before sharing medical advice with people who haven't asked for it Click To Tweet

PS – If you haven’t, check out my post The 8 Things a Millennial with Arthritis Wants You To Know. It might help you understand where I’m coming from in this post.

Like this post? Check out: 

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chronic illness, chronic pain, chronic condition, helping someone with a chronic illness, helping someone with chronic pain
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  • Reply Cherish.

    Yes!! I just tweeted this but bravo for getting this out there, Kate!!

    I’m a medical student so although it may seem like I know a lot (to those who weren’t crazy enough to go this route), I know that I am by no means an expert. Therefore, I keep my mouth shut. I really like your blog because it’s so educational (and I personally LOVE getting to know what other people face and how they handle it).

    I mean, there are times my friends will ask for a diagnosis but I ALWAYS remind them that they need to see their doctor, who IS an expert on their health. If it doesn’t seem like it’s an emergency I might ask more questions to narrow my “diagnosis”, but it’s moreso the practice of “thinking like a clinician” and I ALWAYS let them know that.

    It’s important for people to recognize the boundaries of their knowledge and to not overstep it. While you take unsolicited advice (which I totally agree can be off-putting) with a grain of salt, there are others that will trust nearly anything if a person presents it with enough confidence and bravado.

    March 4, 2016 at 9:18 am
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      Thank you! I do want to clarify, though, that I don’t take unsolicited advice with a grain of salt. I don’t listen to it at all. It isn’t just off-putting – it’s insulting and unnecessary, and often it upsets me, too. It’s especially upsetting when I’m making a point about one aspect of my health and someone comments and wants to give me advice. For example, I recently wrote about treating people with chronic pain like addicts if they’re on opioids. Someone commented on a link to it on social media asking if I’d tried medical marijuana. It seems like an innocent question, but it ignores the point I’m trying to make and my personal experiences. It may not seem like much, but it hits me rather hard.

      March 5, 2016 at 1:49 pm
  • Reply Emily of Em Busy Living

    Good to you for this post. Unsolicited advice, over any topic, is always really frustrating. I think your fourth point can be used on a variety of topics, where the advice-giver always seems to make you feel like you must not be trying enough with whatever it is you’re doing. I hate that.

    March 4, 2016 at 10:47 am
  • Reply Becca Dorr

    During infertility treatments, I got a lot of this, and some of the “advice” was completely ridiculous. Why wouldn’t I try EVERYTHING (minus some bogus methods) before resorting to IVF?

    The only medical advice I give out (usually to people I know fairly well) unsolicited is to drink water. Because as I understand it, the cause of most headaches and general “blah” feelings in healthy people is dehydration.

    March 4, 2016 at 11:00 am
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      Yes! Drinking lots of water is GREAT advice and if you’re going to give any out, that’s the best.

      March 5, 2016 at 1:50 pm
  • Reply Brita Long

    Yes yes yes! I have Crohn’s Disease, and I wrote my own version of this post last year. I was diagnosed over 20 years ago. I know a LOT about IBD. And yet people keep trying to “cure” me with dietary changes. Um, I eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet 15 years ago, thanks, and it did diddly squat for my condition. Which if you knew me well enough to comment on my health, you would know that I did that.

    March 4, 2016 at 7:58 pm
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