Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cyberchondriac or healthy surfing?

The CBC, my favourite online news source, ran a story three days ago on how people obsessively look up their medical ailments on the Web. The article, while pointing out some legitimate concerns, tended to depict these people as crackpots and hypochondriacs. Indeed, the article was even called Cyberchondriacs.

The article, I believe, missed some critical points:
  1. People are forced to turn to the Internet as our current medical system is so inadequate.
    For one, doctors spend scant minutes with a patient. Even our current doctor, who is less hurried than most, does not spend more than 15-20 minutes per visit at the most. There is little time for doctors to even get all the symptoms, let alone spend time educating their patients on the issue, full treatment options, and alternatives. Actually, alternatives are rarely mentioned - it is just pop a pill and call me in a few days if things don't get better. Information on the Web, and there are some great health websites that present reliable information, gives the details doctors do not provide so that patients can make informed decisions about their health. Maybe I have a trust issue, but just getting a pill and going on my merry way doesn't work for me - I need to know the issue in more depth, like should I avoid certain foods, not travel, try this natural remedy as well, etc.
  2. The article points on those who constantly think they are sick, but there are those who don't seek medical attention either at all or in timely fashion. Getting a sense of the severity of an issue from online sources can help encourage someone to seek medical attention.
  3. Second opinions - why our society think doctors are gods is beyond me. They are human and apt to make mistakes, not have time to fully look into something, or not know about all the details or latest research of certain issues. While one is often encouraged to "get a second opinion," it's not so easy to get another doctor and not practical for more minor issues. The Web can help be that second opinion. My wife has many times successfully diagnosed health ailments online that were later confirmed by the doctor. This made me trust the doctor all the more.
I'm not alone in looking up health info online, as CBC points out:
Well over half of online Canadians — 58 per cent — search the Internet for health information from home, up from 46 per cent five years ago, according to Statistics Canada.

I do see the problems cited by the CBC. Among the problems of researching health issues online are people relying on inaccurate websites and also those who decide to treat themselves and don't go to a doctor.

Another problem, which I experienced two months ago, is that it's easy on the Web to find worst case scenarios and horror stories. When my daughter had to be put under anesthesia for dental work, we found stories of children dying as a result of similar work. It did make me REALLY worried. But we were able to contextualize the rarity of these situations and to ask the dentist about precautions. The dentist, unlike some others, had taken extra steps (eg. hiring two extra specialists) that reassured us that he was better option than other dentists who did the procedure alone. I'd rather have known the risks and accounted for them than to not have known at all.

Without the Web, we would have been in the dark on this issue and many other vital health concerns.

No comments: