Cyberchondria

at 12:35 AM
 (Richard Swerdlow)

I wasn't feeling great for a few days -- tired and queasy in the morning. So, I spent about 4 minutes on the internet, diagnosing my condition. Luckily for me, it was an uncomplicated diagnosis -- according to WebMD, I was two months pregnant.
 
But my first self-diagnosis may be my last, since my internet diagnostic skills apparently need work. Actually, it was a slight case of the flu. And I'm not the only one. After my friend Jack looked up his itchy feet, he was sure he'd caught some rare tropical illness, not the athlete's foot it turned out to be. In fact, a study showed eight out of ten people searched the web when they were sick, instead of consulting a medical professional.
 
Tempting as it is to check Yahoo if you have the sniffles, there's a reason medical school takes four years, With the bottomless internet, type in almost any symptom and dozens of possible conditions pop up, ranging from the trivial to the terminal.
 
It used to be enough to figure you had every illness TV doctors diagnose, treat and cure in half an hour on "Gray's Anatomy". Today's digital medical information overload has created a new term: cyberchondria - imagining you are suffering from diseases you only know about from the internet.
 
And, cyberchondria is actually a serious problem, according to experts, resulting in severe anxiety and stress, disrupting everyday life.
 
I've recovered from my own case of cyberchondria. And next time I'm a little under the weather, I'm going to think twice before paging Dr. Google.
 
But the experience was a useful reminder of that easily overlooked fact about ALL things internet - separating online fact from online fiction requires a healthy skepticism. Online medical sites are useful when they arm patients with information and questions they can discuss with their doctor. They can encourage a productive partnership. But good doctors don't make assumptions and don't rely on random information from random sources. As a patient, you wouldn't find that acceptable, but if you're not careful that's what you're doing when you play online doctor.
 
So, though you already know this, here's my prescription before following any kind of online medical advice: Take it with a grain of salt and call your doctor in the morning.
 
With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.
 
Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.
 

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