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A Real Health Care Crisis

A little online research can be a dangerous thing when it comes to medical symptoms. PJM columnist Sheryl Longin writes about "one of the web's dirtiest little secrets" - Internet Induced Hypochondria.

by
Sheryl Longin

Bio

September 8, 2007 - 1:00 am

Since it’s safe to assume that most readers of this column are regular Internet users, I am asking you to come clean about one of the web’s dirtiest little secrets. I am talking about IIH – Internet Induced Hypochondria. I may have coined the term myself, but don’t pretend you have no idea what I’m talking about. We’ve all experienced it. There are millions of sufferers out there. It’s an epidemic that knows no racial, ethnic or sexual boundaries. You don’t even have to be a classic hypochondriac in the Woody Allen mold. In fact, for those who’ve never experienced hypochondria, the danger is far greater, because they have no immunity.

IIH starts innocently enough with a mild but annoying symptom (let’s say a stomach ache), that doesn’t resolve itself as quickly as the sufferer (still living in blissful ignorance) hopes. She tries the usual remedies, but the condition either persists, returns, or isn’t fully resolved. It’s not (yet) something painful or debilitating enough to necessitate the hassle and expense of a doctor’s appointment, which the patient hopes to avoid by using the wondrous tool of our modern age, now effortlessly at her disposal. Wary of crackpots and modern day snake oil salesmen who pollute even the wisest search engines, our intrepid self-healer limits herself to reputable medical sites. As she peruses mayoclinic.com, she feels empowered, invigorated, and even slightly virtuous. Not only is she taking charge of her own health care, she’s also doing her part not to squander the resources of our overburdened health care system.

In an effort to be precise about her symptoms, she answers a series of online diagnostic questions. In what part of the abdomen is the stomach ache located? Is the pain sharp or a dull ache? Intermittent or continuous? How long has she had it? Is it isolated, or (and here’s where the trouble really begins) accompanied by any of the following symptoms…? You all know where this is heading, and so, in all likelihood, does the patient. But here’s the insidious part of IIH – self-awareness of the twisted path you are being led down will do you no good. If that stomachache is a dull ache, sometimes in tandem with upper leg pain, you may have a sluggish colon, uterine fibroids, or ovarian cancer.

By the time our well-intentioned patient has reached this point in her medical journey, it is usually well past the witching hour. The rest of the household is fast asleep. There is nothing to distract her from increasing her knowledge of each of these options. And what better way to do so than by perusing the countless forums frequented by her fellow sufferers? Inevitably she will find others with her exact symptoms! And thank goodness that she has, for this will allow her to avoid the mistakes made in their medical care. She will be able to print out a list of questions (better yet, demands) for the specialist she needs to make an appointment with at eight am tomorrow morning, for there is no time to waste. Some of these poor posters knew no better and adopted the wait and see approach favored by their uninformed physicians. She won’t dwell on the misfortunes that befell them. She is being proactive, for that is the only way to defeat the insidious disease that even now must be charting its deadly course inside her. She knows it. Because there are so many others just like her, who have generously and bravely shared their personal stories, so that she may be cured.

Now, it is nearly morning. For the sake of her immune system, she must catch a few hours sleep. Reluctantly, she shuts off the computer and closes her eyes. As she drifts off, she thinks back longingly to those few short hours before, when she naively believed she had a stomachache. She would give anything to go back to that simple, happy time when her healthy life stretched out before her with nothing more troublesome than an occasional sinus headache… Or is it???

Sheryl Longin is the author of Dorian Greyhound: A Novel and co-screenwriter of the movie Dick.

Sheryl Longin is the author of Dorian Greyhound: A Novel and co-screenwriter of the movie Dick
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