On-line hypochondriac


Wrote H.L. Mencken many years ago, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.” I think this goes double for the Internet. When it comes to trying to diagnose one’s own self via the Internet, it goes triple or maybe even quadruple.

You know how it goes, Maybe you’ve done this yourself (I sure have). You’re not feeling well, and you can’t quite put your finger on exactly why. Rather than first consult your own doctor, who may be unavailable because it’s one in the morning or maybe you just don’t want to drop a $30 or $40 co-pay this week, off you go to Dr. Google. The next thing you know, that soreness in your hip or irritation of the sinus leads you to believe, with all your might, that you do not have plain-old bursitis or allergies. Nope, it absolutely has to be a case of Tasmanian crotch palsy or chronic obstructive sinusitis, neither of which or curable.

Neither of which you actually have. But before that finally dawns on you, or is pointed out by a medical professional in real time, you’ve driven yourself half nuts with anxiety and may well have signed up for an account at designmyowncoffin.com. Really, besides getting loaded and trolling your ex’s Facebook, there are few more self-destructive things you can do on the web.

There’s been a term for it, minted in Britain circa 2000 — not long after the web became commonplace. It’s called “cyberchondria”; the phenomenon of self-guided surfing on the Internet for health information leading people to believe, usually in error, that they have an illness.

In 2008, two Microsoft researchers, Ryen White and Eric Horvitz, conducted the first study which tried to figure out how much of a problem Internet self-diagnosis was. Their study included a survey of 515 Microsoft employees — people familiar with the Internet who may be presumed to approach it with slightly more critical thinking than regular folk. Or maybe not: according to the survey, about 90 percent of them started out searching for information on regular medical symptoms ended up visiting sites about more serious maladies.

“People tend to look at just the first couple of results,” Horvitz was quoted in The New York Times as saying back in 2008. “If they find ‘brain tumor’ or ‘A.L.S.,’ that’s their launching point.”

It was that way for me a few times. After a nodule was found on my thyroid gland, I went straight to my laptop and found some information stating that less than ten percent of such nodules are cancerous. I immediately began planning my funeral and got started on the first stage of the Kubler-Ross process. (A biopsy performed by a surgeon creepily reminiscent of William S. Burroughs’ Dr. Benway found the nodule was just bonus thyroid.)

Another time was when, shortly after a long plane ride stuffed into a more-cramped-than-usual airplane seat and after some start/stop urination in a turbulence-tumbled airplane bathroom, I came down with an apparent case of hematospermia. (Look it up, I dare you.) Somehow I looked right past the “is in the overwhelming majority harmless and disappears within a few weeks” and got right to the “carcinoma of the seminal vesicles.” (It disappeared within half a week, much to my relief at not having to have cringeworthy pre-intimacy “talks” with future partners.)

How does this happen? A large part of it, I figure, is basic curiosity — the essentially human trait which has led to all sorts of good things and some bad things too for eons before the Internet came about. Another part of it, I think, is money. The commerce side of the web is all about clicks — the more clicks one gets, the more money one gets from website ads. We also know bad news gets more attention than good news, so the incentive is to put the bad news ahead of the good.

There’s also the “cult of the amateur” — the sense among many today that so-called experts have been co-opted by dark, conformist forces and cannot be trusted over one’s own unsullied intuition. I’m all for skepticism, but I’m also all for knowing one’s own knowledge is limited, and the good grades I got in high-school bio are no substitute for medical school and years of clinical experience.

So, my advice is as follows: discriminate in your web-based self-diagnosis and stick to sites from places with a track record, like the Mayo Clinic, National Institute of Health, et al. (One interesting development is CrowdMed, a web-based “crowdsourcing” platform detailed in a recent Ulster Publishing health column; check out our healthyhv.com for that piece, in case you missed it.)

Don’t panic. Yes, some people do get the worst of diagnoses. But keep the laws of probability in your mind as you try to match your symptoms to your ailment. And, above all, find a doctor you trust and see them, in real life. There’s really no substitute for that.

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