The internet provides millions of people around the world instantaneous access to a wealth of knowledge. We have the best (and worst) of literature, art, science and political commentary at our fingertips, morning, noon and night.
Philly Patient Takes On “Cyberchondria” After Colon Cancer Scare
But no sphere of human activity has taken to the information age quite like medicine. Health insurance companies use complex algorithms to estimate medical risks. Medical professionals are switching to electronic health records at lightning speed. Cancer researchers test out cutting-edge treatments just as often in computer simulations as they do in actual patients. But patients have also taken to the web in droves, demanding more and more of their medical answers from Google, rather than their real doctors. Should computer algorithms be providing us with a diagnosis?
This is the important question asked in a new opinion piece, ” ‘Dr. Google’ made me worry about colon cancer. Did I overreact?”, over at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In his article, Tom Avril makes the argument that internet searches for health information aren’t making us better informed, but instead, creating undue anxiety, worry and could even interfere with professionally-administered care.
Is Google Just Driving Irrational Medical Fears?
This phenomenon has even been given a name: cyberchondria. The term, not necessarily meant as a pejorative, is derived from hypochondria, the psychological disorder characterized by an abnormal and excessive worry about having a severe medical condition. Dr. Google, many medical professionals say, is fueling a new version of the disorder, as patients gain a cursory understanding of the worst conditions that could explain their symptoms.
Search Engines Aren’t Designed To Diagnose
Logically, when we come down with something, most of us have a common medical condition. That’s why they’re common. But computer algorithms, researchers have found, tend to gravitate toward rare and often-disastrous disorders. In one analysis of search results, scientists Ryen White and Eric Horvitz at Microsoft found that web searches were often used as a substitute for differential diagnosis, the process by which medical professionals rule out potential diagnoses, but one for which no search engine was designed.
As just one example of this mismatch, White and Horvitz point out that no search engine currently takes the prevalence or incidence of a disorder into question in serving their results. So a rare disease may be just as likely to appear as the more common, and likely, options. And since search engines usually rank pages based in part on their popularity, human interest in more severe disorders could skew search results toward rare and serious conditions.
Of course, another factor playing into these cases is that some people are simply geared to worry about their health (or “escalate medical concerns,” in the terminology used by White and Horvitz).
Is Worry Getting In The Way Of Health Treatments?
Avril started to worry early this year, after noticing “a bit of blood in the toilet.” He was also experiencing constipation and mild weight loss. What could explain these symptoms? Avril turned to Google. After a quick search, he found “several reputable sites” that gave him pause. His symptoms were consistent with colon cancer, a condition that has been rising in people between the ages of 40 and 49, despite steep declines among older patients.
Avril also happened to be nearing his 50th birthday, when health insurance companies begin paying for routine colon cancer screenings. So he called his doctor’s office and spoke to a nurse. Hemorrhoids, she said. It sounded like hemorrhoids. Avril hung up, but he was still a little worried.
Colonoscopy Ends The Debate
A month later, his symptoms continuing unabated, Avril called back and talked to his physician. Dr. Christina Kim agreed with the nurse’s judgment, noting that Avril’s family had no history of colon cancer and that his weight loss had been minimal and gradual. But Dr. Kim also thought that, if it would assuage Avril’s fears, he could come in for a colonoscopy. A few months later, Avril found himself at Holy Redeemer’s Ambulatory Surgery Center, in a hospital gown and ready to go.
The colonoscopy itself, Avril writes, “was no big deal.” And the results were good. Avril’s gastroenterologist found no evidence of polyps, the primary risk factor for colon cancer. The blood in his stool? Hemorrhoids, the doctor found.