June 30, 2011
House Detective: Self-diagnosing on the Web can be bad for your health
By Jeanné McCartin
"Please, you have to come get me. I have to get to the emergency room," says Maureen into the phone in a rather panicked tone. Beyond asking if an ambulance was warranted and being told a friend ride was enough I didn't question the call. I hung up, flew over, loaded her in the car and then asked for details.
She was experiencing dizziness and the shakes, along with a headache.
"And?" I said.
"Well I'm dizzy," she repeated indignantly in a voice indicating stuffy nasal passages. "I think I've contracted West Nile virus." She went on to say she was lethargic, unable to focus, her muscles and joints hurt like Hades and she was alternating between fever and freezing.
You know what's coming. We all know one: they get a headache and a sore throat, hit the World Wide Web and "bam," they have a rare tropical disease.
Maureen was the latest to fall prey to that sticky web. She was in fact sick, had a hummer of a flu. But she casually started looking up the mix and got drawn in to the dark side of diagnosis.
Funny how pre computer and access to all this medical advice she easily recognized a flu, and unless it went on for weeks she — we — rode it out.
Now more and more of us suffer from cyber-induced stress or worse, cyberchondria.
Statistics show it as a burgeoning phenomenon. Seventy-two percent of U.S. adult internet users searched health-related information in 2010, compared to 63 million in 2002, (World of DTC Marketing.com: Manhattan Research). The Harris Poll puts 2010 numbers at 175 million Americans, up from 154 million the previous year. And the Pew Institute says health issues are the third most popular online activity. Point: on the rise.
There are lots of reasons reflected in those statistic. Some people merely peruse for information — facts on vitamins or herbs for example. Others check on how to deal with normal childhood illnesses, or treatment for sunburns, or effects of a prescribed drug. But many type in symptoms looking for a diagnosis and come up scared.
What's the cause of that indigestion, dizziness or fatigue? Well it could be overeating, the flu or lack of sleep. But your symptoms might match a gall bladder disease, or heart problem. Now you're nervous. And rather than back away from the computer or consider your general health, current circumstance, or the source of the info, you keep on clicking.
The Web used unwisely can be bad for your health, your mental health at least.
There are upsides. It can be used for education. If you go to the right place there are great suggestions for easing common illnesses at home.
But it's important to be mindful of the downsides. The online information is not regulated and can include a lot of misinformation; even when it's correct it can be wrong for you.
In 2008 Microsoft researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz studied search engines and the behavior of a million users in a large-scale, longitudinal, log-based study, and found a Web search used to diagnose a symptom has the potential to increase the anxieties of users who don't have proper medical training or education.
The pair wrote: "We focused on the extent to which common, likely innocuous symptoms can escalate into the review of content on serious, rare conditions that are linked to the common symptoms. Our results show that Web search engines have the potential to escalate medical concerns."
The study found many people assume the worst and over-estimate the severity of their ailments when checking them out online. They found a search for chest pain was more likely to link to a worst-case scenario such as a heart attack than something as mundane as indigestion. The reason for that is simple. A search engine — no matter the subject — will give you the highest ranking page related to your keyword, (most popular), or the one with the most links, not the most appropriate one.
In addition to worst-case issue there's that of erroneous information — there's cyberquackery to go along with that cyberchondria.
So how to proceed? Stick to reputable sites; solid, educational information can be found online. But as it is with anything, you need to do your homework. Is the site a reliable medical source? Is it written by a credible doctor in the field? Is the information up to date?
Two of the more reputable sites are WebMD, and Mayo Clinic; and there are others. There are also health sites that allow you to plug in pertinent information that would help lead you to more likely scenarios for what ails you, in a process similar to "differential diagnosis" used by your living-breathing physical, (taking into consideration your health, and family history etc.)
You can also ask your doctor to recommend a site for common ailments.
Finally, if you're earnestly worried about a symptom, put down the mouse and get to a qualified, medical practitioner, which for now, no machine can replace.
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