I’ve often heard that first year students in medical school can be nervous wrecks – not because of the rigor of their studies but because, with any little symptom of illness they feel, they think the worst. If they have a headache, it must be brain cancer. If they are bone tired, it must bone leukemia. It shows how jumping to conclusions about our health is a bad idea…something you’ve probably heard from your own doctor when you’ve been worried about yourself or a loved one. Self-diagnosis can get you into trouble.
You may have heard that I was recently interviewed on ABC’s The View. Behind-the-scenes, one of the lead producers told me the story of having breathing problems and being sure he had asthma. He searched the Internet for everything he could find about asthma and then he went to the doctor to tell him what was wrong. Guess what? It wasn’t asthma at all. It was a heart arrhythmia. Eventually the producer had a catheter inserted in his groin, fed up to his heart and zap!-- the arrhythmia was gone. Asthma would not have been so straightforward. Score this one for the doctors getting it right and the patient, armed with an extensive web search, getting it wrong.
My new book, The Web-Savvy Patient, encourages people to go online. Certainly we know, no matter what, people are doing that at the drop of a hat now when symptoms come up. If it’s not the patient searching, it’s a family member or friend. That is not a bad thing if you know how to do it in a smart way.
Rule Number One: It is better to search after you’ve received a diagnosis, and one everyone is pretty sure about. That could spare you from worrying about a brain tumor causing your headaches and enable you to focus in on migraine, or better still, maybe just drinking too much coffee.
Rule Number Two: Get as specific a diagnosis as you can. That means not just “a thyroid problem” but rather hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s disease or Graves' disease. Approaches vary so it is essential you know what you are dealing with specifically.
Rule Number Three: As you search, go to more than one website. Go to three or four and don’t pay for information or products anywhere.