Cyberchondria -- leaping to dire conclusions while researching health questions on line -- is attracting increased attention.
Last Monday, Microsoft researchers published results of a study of health-related searches on its search engine and a survey of the company’s employees. The results confirmed that self-diagnosis on the Web leads searchers to conclude the worst.
“The researchers said they had undertaken the study as part of an effort to add features to Microsoft’s search service that could make it more of an adviser and less of a blind information retrieval tool,” The New York Times reported on Nov. 25.
The long-term goal is creating search engines that could detect medical queries and offer advice that did not automatically make searchers fear the worst, according to the story. In the age of too much information, that certainly sounds like a good idea. In the meantime, if you are going to search, a woman interviewed for a USA Today story had a good idea. In addition to checking out her symptoms (in this case anemia) she also searched for "anemia and benign conditions" so that she could have a balance of information.
If you do end up being diagnosed with a serious condition, the Internet can help you research treatment options and find the best doctor to treat you. After everything is in place, you might want to follow the advice of my doctor at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: STAY OFF THE INTERNET.
Through writing this blog, I already know more than I’d like to know. For example, when writing about my bouts with CMV, or cytomegalovirus, which affects people whose immune systems are weakened, I looked it up and found that in the worst-case scenarios, it can lead to disease and death. When caught early, however, it produces few if any symptoms, and they test for it early before it gets full blown.
Of course if you are prone to hypochondria, you don’t need the Internet to give yourself the worst diagnosis. Medical school students are known to have “medical schoolitis,” diagnosing themselves with every disease they learn about. Newspaper reporters like myself are also vulnerable. We write a lot of hard luck health stories, some with happy endings, others to benefit a cause. Then we worry that the disease of the day will pounce on us or on our loved ones.
I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac. A headache meant a brain tumor, and my sensitive stomach signaled stomach cancer. Then as a reporter I found new things to worry about. Once I wrote about an adorable toddler being treated for leukemia. Her mother said she became worried when her daughter developed small black and blue marks all over her body; these turned out to be a sign of low platelets caused by leukemia.
This was around the same time that Katie was learning to ride a bike. With each tumble, she developed another black and blue mark on her legs. I called the pediatrician. A nurse asked me if the marks were all over her body, and I said no, just on her legs. She said that if it was serious, the marks would be all over her body, but I could bring her in if I was worried. I let it go when I saw that each new mark corresponded to a new fall. By the way, the nurse told me that lots of parents called with the same question about bruises and leukemia.
When it came to my own diagnosis many years later with leukemia, I wasn’t a big Internet user, so I wouldn’t have looked up my symptoms. In any case, there wasn’t much to look up. I don’t think I would have found much if I did a search for “fatigue during a 10-K road race,” which was my only symptom.
I did know enough to feel that something wasn’t right, so I called my doctor the day after the race. He had a cancellation two days later, and when I saw him he did bloodwork “just to be sure.”
Not even two weeks after that, I was in the hospital. I had been diagnosed early enough so that I was otherwise in good health. Bottom line: If you really think something is wrong, call your doctor.