Is medical googling making us sick?

By Dana Kinita

Awhina Knight came home crying to her husband one day after work.
The 31-year-old newly-wed had been trying to fall pregnant for 10 months. A bit of internet surfing led her to the conclusion that she was unable to have children.
"I come from a very fertile family so I couldn't understand why I wasn't falling pregnant," she says.
"I started googling some of the things I was experiencing - pelvic pain just before my period, tiredness, back pains and headaches.
"Somehow I stumbled on this endometriosis site. I was convinced I had it. I ticked all the symptom boxes."
She went home with the fact sheets on the condition - which can contribute to infertility - to show her husband.
"He thought someone had died because I was blubbering away," she said.
"To be honest I didn't think he put that much importance into what I found and told me to go see a doctor instead.
"I didn't want to; I thought a doctor would just confirm it, so I kind of accepted my lot in life. I even looked into adoption instead."
Through "constant nagging" from her husband, she visited her GP, who later told her there was nothing wrong with her other than a slight iron deficiency.
"I felt like an idiot - I could have saved myself so much heartbreak and stress if I just went to him in the first place," she says.
"Our beautiful baby boy was born late last year and we couldn't be happier."
While Awhina didn't have anything medically wrong, she did suffer from a hefty dose of what is commonly known as "cyberchondria".
According to Dictionary.com, the condition is defined as an unfounded anxiety concerning the state of one's health brought on by visiting health and medical websites.


GP Dr Shawn Toohey says he's had many patients come through his Auckland surgery showing signs of cyberchondria.
"I like the fact that patients are well-informed, but what I like even more is that they've actually come in," he says.
"The biggest danger with the internet approach is people might not see the need to consult a doctor at all.
"Your body is such a variable, it's not always like a car; if you do A to it, B will happen. People are individuals and unless it receives that individual attention, there is a risk of misdiagnosis, which may delay receiving the right treatment."
A recent study in the British Medical Journal tested the diagnostic capabilities of website search engine Google. By entering three to five search words taken from case notes, the report found 58 per cent of the cases diagnosed correctly.
"The internet has its value and you hear the stories of doctors not able to diagnose certain symptoms and the patient goes on the internet and discovers correctly he has a hernia or something - but those cases are most definitely the exception rather than the rule," Dr Toohey says.
"I use it myself to access research papers or to read about the latest medicine released. I view credible websites and use my training and experience to determine what is relevant.
"At times, I recommend to patients, after they've been consulted, to view certain websites in relation to their diagnosed condition. There is often information on local support groups in their area."
The use of the internet has become so common that the Medical Council of New Zealand released a statement addressing the issue.
"Patients should not be discouraged from using the internet to research their condition or treatment, but they may need to be reminded that internet research cannot take the place of a face-to-face consultation," it said.
"Patients who obtain information from the internet may wish to discuss this with their doctor. Doctors should use this as an opportunity to discuss the quality of the information with patients.
"Sometimes the information obtained by the patient may be poor-quality and/or creates certain expectations.
"In such cases doctors must take care to provide sound reasons why the patient should reject the information and, where possible, provide documentation to support the alternative advice or treatment that they are recommending."
As Awhina enjoys motherhood, she takes online advice with "a pinch of salt".
"I'm really happy I was wrong," she says. "I worked myself all up when it was just my body being itself.
"I still check out the odd thing on the net about my health, but I know now not to read it like The Bible."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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