Your doctor wants you to get off the internet

Posted September 27

You can find answers to pretty much every medical question on the internet — and many of them are wrong. That's one reason your doctor would like you to stop Googling your family's symptoms; another is that you're probably making yourself overly anxious.

It's all about the power of suggestion, wrote Mary Aiken, director of the Cyberpsychology Research Network, in Quartz.

"You search online for 'sore throat,' for instance, and find yourself engrossed and horrified by descriptions of esophageal cancer. Your anxiety escalates," Aiken wrote. And anxiety can create another subset of symptoms, actually make you sicker, she said.

Nearly three-quarters of us consult Dr. Google, according to Pew Research, and half of us then make appointments with our doctors to discuss what we found on the internet. This results in clogged waiting rooms of primary care doctors who are already in short supply.

And instead of being pleased with our industriousness, doctors hate it when we show up with printouts of information we found online, Aiken wrote. They're the ones with the medical degrees, after all; we don't even play a doctor on TV.

Then there's the counterintuitive fact that the more time you spend having tests in medical offices and hospitals, the higher your risk of having a serious medical problem related to your treatment.

"The third-most-common cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and cancer, is 'iatrogenic effect,' a blanket term that can refer to an unfortunate drug side effect or interaction, a surgical instrument malfunction, physician negligence, medical error, pathogens in the treatment room, or simple bad luck," Aiken wrote.

In 2001, a British physician quoted by the BBC dubbed diagnosis-by-internet and its resulting anxieties "cyberchondria," a play on hypochondria, which is excessive worry about real or imagined illness.

Eight years later, two researchers at Microsoft published an analysis of health searches on the internet, demonstrating how one search can lead a person down a rabbit hole of escalating conditions.

"In a study of 40 million searches — 10,000 of them manually analyzed — they were able to demonstrate that searchers progressed from reading about normal complaints to looking at rare and serious medical conditions," Aiken wrote.

And those who use online symptom checkers, like those at WebMD and the Mayo Clinic, should know that even Dr. Algorithm isn't always right either. As The Atlantic reported last year, the chances of getting a correct diagnosis the first time ranged from 5 to 50 percent in one study.

When seen in person, doctors have a much higher rate of diagnosing your problem correctly — 85 to 90 percent. And even doctors you see online — those who practice telemedicine — offer a correct diagnosis about 76 percent of the time, one study found.

Bottom line: If you're truly worried about a suspicious mole or a nagging cough, use the internet — to look up your doctor's phone number.

As Cari Romm wrote in New York Magazine recently, "There’s that saying doctors have: When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. On the internet, it’s zebras galore."


TWITTER: @grahamtoday


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