Blog Post 5: Research Tools

I want to post about WebMD. Because I am obsessed with it.

I’m going to start by telling you what a hypochondriac is, however, because it’s relevant to WebMD and other resources like it. Hypochondriasis is ‘an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness’. Everyone knows somebody that has at least some of these traits – that person that gets a bad cough during flu week and is obsessed with the idea that they might have cholera. Do they have a headache? It must be a migraine. Every time.

Lots of people, even mentally healthy people, can worry too much about their health. It’s pretty natural – we’re worried about what we don’t understand, and the majority of us know very little about how it is we keep waking up in the morning alive. We’re pretty sure it has to do with eating every day, and oxygen, and maybe blood levels, but shows like House MD get us concerned that maybe that leg jiggling that happens in our sleep is actually a clogged artery. That will kill us. To death.

And so, with our natural concerns being amplified by medical shows that are often both scary and completely inaccurate, we head to the internet. Because you don’t need to buy Grey’s Anatomy anymore, or the specialized enormous tomes that focused specifically on small, innocuous symptoms that really mean you have a deathly illness. (And, yes, they do exist.) Now you just need to log on and self-diagnose.

And there is the problem. The ‘Symptom Checker’ on WebMD has been especially panned for oversimplifying issues and leading would-be patients to false conclusions. The Symptom Checker, which I encourage you to try out for yourself, asks for your age, sex, zip code, and email – I assume it only uses the first 2 things for diagnostic purposes – and from there you literally just start clicking on what hurts.

As an example, I entered in that I had nasal congestion, runny nose, and sneezing. Pretty generic. While most of the suggestions are benign (indoor allergens, common cold and hay fever come up first), it also suggests that I might have ‘nasal polyps’ or ‘whooping cough’. Or… West Nile virus. (Maybe I should get to the Health Center.)

And the thing is, all of these are technically possible. What we as a Didn’t-Attend-Med-School community need to keep in mind, however, is that even having a reputable medical textbook isn’t the same as going to a doctor. The internet doesn’t know your medical history – and if it ever asks you for it, please, for the love of all that is good and secure, don’t give it what it wants. Trained doctors will always outrank click-through questionnaires, no matter how good the Flash is, and while resources like WebMD can be invaluable for sudden medical situations or the occasional question, remember that you pay that insurance premium for a reason. Get those yearly checkups on time and leave the wildly uneducated guesses to Dr. Nick.

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