Doctor Google, Give Me The News

9 years ago

Mid-way through my pregnancy with my first child, my doctor sat me down and said this:

"I want you to promise me that you WILL NOT DIAGNOSE YOURSELF THROUGH GOOGLE."

"Okay," I said, pulling one hand behind my back and crossing my fingers. "I won't Google."

"And you won't do ANY internet research on issues that you are worrying about. You will call ME, or you will call Motherisk."

"Yep." Fingers still crossed behind my back.

"Because you know how anxious you get."

"I know."

"Why have you got one hand behind your back?"

I was unable to keep my promise to her, which was too bad, because I really was Googling myself into a fit of hysteria. I had been spotting since the beginning of the pregnancy, and every time it happened, I would google SPOTTING or MISCARRIAGE or SIGNS OF MISCARRIAGE or HOW DO I KNOW IF I AM LOSING MY BABY and invariably freak the crap right out of myself. But I couldn't help myself.

And apparently, I'm not alone. According to a recent story in the New York Times, 'cyberchondria' - that mysterious affliction that causes even the most reasonable people to diagnose themselves with everything from miscarriages to cancer via the internets - is a pretty widespread condition, and the afflicted have a tendency to freak out about what they discover when they consult Dr. Google. The study suggests that "self-diagnosis by search engine frequently leads Web searchers to conclude the worst about what ails them."

“People tend to look at just the first couple results,” said one of the architects of the study. “If they find ‘brain tumor’ or ‘A.L.S.’ that’s their launching point.” So I'm not the only one who tends to jump to the worst conclusions?

The study found that internet research is more likely than not to lead people to the scariest conclusions:

The (researchers) found that Web searches for things like headache and chest pain were just as likely or more likely to lead people to pages describing serious conditions as benign ones, even though the serious illnesses are much more rare.

For example, there were just as many results that linked headaches with brain tumors as with caffeine withdrawal, although the chance of having a brain tumor is
infinitesimally small.

The researchers said they had not intended their work to send the message that people should ignore symptoms. But their examination of search records indicated that researching particular symptoms often led quickly to anxiousness.

I could have told them that.

The study focuses primarily on internet search engines. Which is interesting, because I find that although I still use Google to diagnose everything from toddler sniffles to sore feet, I'm very nearly as likely to ask people on Twitter for their assessments. Which I did recently when a doctor at a local clinic told me that my 6-month old might have pneumonia. I tweeted my concerns and immediately got responses from parents, doctors and doctors-in-training (the consensus? get a second opinion.) And when Jen of JenandTonic tweeted a concern about pink eye the other day, there was an immediate rush of responses from other parents willing to share what they knew to help her diagnose and deal with the situation.

Which, is that much more helpful than Dr. Google? Maybe, because a reliable community of Twitter peeps is perhaps less likely to drive you to consider the worst case scenarios - they'll commiserate and tell you that their kid had that rash or that they too get that gassy feeling after beans or that they prefer warm milk to help with insomnia and they'll never let you get completely freaked out that maybe you're gassy because you have COLON CANCER. They're more likely to say, oh, that's probably just gas. It's like calling your neighbor or your mom.

That said, you might want to Google colon cancer, just to be sure.

Catherine Connors blogs as Her Bad Mother and is currently struggling with the challenges of having a junkie in the house.

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