When one of those morning “news” shows recently featured a story about people using the Internet to get medical information on the same day that the New York Times dealt with that subject, I knew that this medical surfing had become an epidemic.
I’ve never used the Internet to self-diagnose an ailment or second-guess my doctor. This is because it would only make me feel worse. I’m the kind of person who asks my doctor to refrain from telling me the possible side effects of medications, knowing that this information will make me imagine that I’m suffering from these side effects. So I don’t think it’s a good idea for folks to use the Internet for medical purposes if they are among those people who, whenever they’re asked for their occupation, should truthfully answer, “hypochondriac.”
Don’t get me wrong. The Internet can be a marvelous resource. If I had a serious ailment or had something that several doctors were unable to diagnose, I would probably turn to the Internet. I’m sure that the Internet has saved lives and armed many patients with important information.
There are so many medical sites on the Web that some experts suggest that you only go to those whose names end in .gov. The theory is that if it is a government-approved site, we can trust it. Nice theory, but remember it’s the same government that gave us the Great Economic Disease of 2008. I say, shop around and use whatever sites make sense to you. But use them wisely.
Those who think they know as much as doctors just because they have surfed the Web, are probably wrong. Those who give their friends medical advice based on what they read on the Internet last year are probably making a mistake. And those who learn things from the Internet but keep them a secret from their doctor are really being silly. Share what you learned with him or her. If your doctor is insulted that you went on the Internet, get another doctor.
I still maintain that the Internet isn’t the place to go every time you have a pain, a scratch, or a cough. I decided to put this to the test. I have some pain in my arm that I assume is from playing tennis. But how can I be sure? I’m not a doctor. So, I went online to see what the Web had to say about my pain.
The first site I went to listed 123 possible causes of arm pain. That seemed a bit overwhelming, so I left. The next site, honestly, had 61 causes of arm pain. It’s interesting that this site had almost exactly half the causes of the other site. I wondered if it only dealt with one arm instead of two.
There is a kind of site that is the worst kind for anxious patients, and is there any other kind of patient? This site allows you to take the symptom — like arm pain — and then look at various causes which you can accept or reject, and then add a second symptom, etc. In other words, let’s say you have arm pain, but sometimes you have an itchy left eye. That could mean that you have an entirely different problem from the person who has arm pain and is allergic to sour cream.
Among the first 10 causes prominently listed on a site dealing with arm pain were angina, arteriosclerosis, and a chronic peptic ulcer. I couldn’t even find tennis or any kind of exercise on the list. Was I wrong about my pain? I had to admit that I often have an upset stomach. Could the pain in my arm mean that I had an ulcer?
The longer I looked at possible symptoms, I felt I’d be lucky if it was “only” an ulcer. The more I read, the more I felt a need to read even more. “Just one more site,” I promised myself, over and over again. After a while, the pain in my arm grew worse and worse. Was this psychological?
But before I checked out “reasons, psychological,” I realized what was causing the increased pain. My arm was hurting me more and more because of all the typing I was doing. And I’m happy to say I resisted doing a search for “pain and stupid repetitive behavior.”
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his Web site at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.