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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Put down the Google and step away from the computer...

My mother insists on diagnosing herself. Truth be told, she is not alone. Now, I am a sincere fan of technology. I am not one of those Luddites who feel that we've "lost our way of communicating with each other" due to the "mass of media" so to speak. in fact just last night, I used the Internet to cancel dinner with friends and then backed it up with a text message for extra effect... I use my computer for most things. Thanks to the Internet, I have been able to redecorate our bedroom, spare room and hallway, complete with wallpaper and carpeting without ever leaving the comfort of the couch I bought on eBay. I have spent more time shopping in cyberspace than most people do in a mall and rejoice in my lap top's ability to support my need to multitask at all times. I stand firmly in the belief that MY Internet has not only made me smarter but more efficient. Give me a WiFi connection, a cup of coffee and 45 minutes and I think I can make magic. However, the Internet, like accessories can be very dangerous when put in the wrong hands. I believe cyberspace was invented for three basic things...
The exchange of ideas

I draw the line at self diagnosis. Mother if you are reading this.... do not shut off your computer. I regularly have patients present to my office with a list of their symptoms and a list of possible diagnoses, only to tell me what they have "come up with" as far as the Internet is concerned. Make no mistake, I am all for patient empowerment and people being a part of the healing process. i am a firm believer that a patient is best served when the treatment process is a team effort. That team, however does not include some My Space with a need to diagnose perfect strangers.

I can't help but think it is a sad reflection on how we as physicians have lost touch with our patients. We've have gotten so overwhelmed by the disease and the work that we forgot how to just sit and talk to people. Maybe it's because we are working too hard. Maybe it is because there is more disease and more treatment than ever before in our profession. Maybe it is easier to give someone a website and the name of their disease and let them "have at it".

I'm all for people learning about treatment options and what lays before them once they have been diagnosed with an illness. BUT, last week a woman walked into my office and told me she had used the Internet to diagnose herself with Addison's Disease, an illness where your adrenal glands don't make enough stress hormones. She had been fatigued for sometime and had gone on several websites and entered her symptoms and POOF! There it was... her diagnosis. Furthermore, she had been able with a few clicks to send away for steroids and was now going to start treatment. I kid you not.

Needless to say, I did screen this woman for Addison's and she does not have the disease. I spent an hour trying to reassure her that she did not have Addison's and I would not be surprised if she is still taking her cyberspace steroids. This is not meant as a cautionary tale. I know this is an EXTREME case, but it is there. Internet connections are like children.... A fever is not Swine flu until proven otherwise and a headache is often just a headache. I'm a huge fan of people taking their own blood pressure and keeping a list of their own medications. This is not about self-breast exams. I am talking about googling symptoms and coming up with a diagnosis (you know who you are). My mother, and I do love her, Diagnoses herself all the time. She often seeks a second opinion through the help of friends who have similar symptoms. So, I had to know.... what is the evidence behind self diagnosis?

According to a 2008 research report by Microsoft concerning the escalation of medical concerns in web searches, of the 8 in 10 American adults that have searched for health care information online, “75 percent refrain from checking key quality indicators such as the validity of the source and the creation date of medical information”. A recent report by the BBC says that by 2020, 35% of people will use the Internet to diagnose their ailments. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Looked at the accuracy of people searching for medical information online. The study surveyed over 15,000 people searching for medical information online looking at the accuracy, completeness and design of health-related websites. It showed that in 70 percent of the studies examined, the quality of health-related Web content was low at best.

So, if 80% of people search the web for medical information and only 30% of them get descent advice, That leaves 6 out of 10 people thinking they know more than they really do... The story rings as loudly as ever. Sure, search the net- but BACK IT UP! We should be talking to a doctor for medical concerns. I have yet to hear of people fixing their cars with only online help... So for all my cyber sisters out there... Don't take my word for it! Before we go any further... please don't use me for diagnosis. I am merely a weekly amusement. I may be a stylish dresser and a witty woman, but I am also most certainly full of shit. That is unless you are a patient in my office and then, yes, like all doctors... I DO know everything.

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