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Can Google Make You Sick?

Looking up diseases can turn all of us into hypochondriacs

by
Sarah Hoyt

Bio

October 16, 2013 - 7:00 am
Whatever you do, don't tell the doctor you're suffering from Housemaid's Knee.  He might have read Three Men In A Boat.

Whatever you do, don’t tell the doctor you’re suffering from Housemaid’s Knee. He might have read Three Men In A Boat.

When I was very young, reading Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, I came across the passage where he’s left alone with a medical encyclopedia for a few moments, and becomes convinced he suffers from every possible disease excluding only Housemaid’s knee.

Since then, and particularly in my household since I got married and formed my own family, the name for any unspecified and most likely imaginary malady of the type that prevents kids from doing homework and adults from going to work when there’s a snow storm out is “Housemaid’s Knee.”

Apparently, due to google, a lot of people are suffering the same syndrome as the main character of Three Men In a Boat.

Imagine my delight when this Telegraph article refers to precisely that passage in Three Men in a Boat:

The finest medical advice in literary history comes in the opening pages of Three Men in a Boat. The narrator recounts how, on going to the British Museum to read up on some passing ailment, he starts flicking through the pages of a medical dictionary. To his consternation, he discovers that, in every instance, the symptoms correspond exactly to his own. From ague to zymosis, via cholera, gout and St Vitus’s Dance, it turns out that the only disease he has escaped is housemaid’s knee – an omission he cannot help but find rather vexing.

In something of a panic, he visits his doctor, and informs him of this melange of maladies. He is given this prescription: “1 lb. beefsteak, with 1 pt. bitter beer, every 6 hours. 1 ten-mile walk every morning. 1 bed at 11 sharp every night. And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.”

The hypochondriac impulse is universal. We don’t all take it to the extremes of a Florence Nightingale, who spent a good two thirds of her 90 years confined to her bed, convinced she was at death’s door. But who hasn’t felt the temptation to translate a fevered forehead into a full-on case of swine flu, or – if you’re Norman Baker – a conviction that the men in dark suits have finally resorted to the old polonium cocktail in an effort to silence you for good?

While there’s no doubt they’re right, and that there is a bit of hypochondriac in all of us — a reason they warn medical students of this tendency — if you’re levelheaded and scientifically literate, you can usually narrow down your possible ailments for your doctor’s consideration. On the other hand, you’d best make sure your family doctor knows you very well, or he’ll roll his eyes and think you’re suffering from housemaid’s knee.

Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock © William Perugini

Sarah Hoyt lives in Colorado with her husband, two sons and too many cats. She has published Darkship Thieves and 16 other novels, and over 100 short stories. Writing non-fiction is a new, daunting endeavor. For more on Sarah and samples of her writing, look around at Sarah A. Hoyt.com or check out her writing and life blog at According to Hoyt.com.

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All Comments   (3)
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And at my age, 68, I think I have tennis elbow! I haven't had any kind of racket in my hand for almost 40 years. I guess the one I did handle was contaminated with some terminal plague.
It's accuracy was way off, too.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hey, I had tennis elbow once officially, as in diagnosed by a doctor, and I have never played tennis in my life. Any repetitive movement can give you that.

I also did diagnose myself correctly as suffering from seasonal affective disorder several years before I got a doctor's diagnosis, but that was a pretty easy guess since I had gotten diagnosed, by several doctors, as suffering from atypical depression (instead of no appetite eats a lot, instead of not being able to sleep sleeps too much), a problem I had always during the winter (every damn winter too, only after a while I stopped complaining about it to doctors every winter, got tired of not getting much of any kind of help from them). And I always miraculously recovered for the summer.

So it seemed kind of obvious, but I deal with universal health care, which means every time I went to a doctor's office it was a different doctor, and since winter blues in its bad form is rare... well, it took years, and managing to luck into a program where the same doctor observed me during about a four month long period before getting that official diagnosis. Yep, it was obvious to him then (I never suggested it to him, by the way, and it was not just what I told him, I was tested regularly, memory, concentration and so on, during those months).

But yep, suggesting a possible diagnosis to a doctor seems like a surefire method to make them dismiss that particular possibility out of hand. If you want them to consider what you think might be the problem you have to be either sneaky or maybe very persistent (as in let's get those tests so the pain in the butt gives up harping about that... but that works only if you deal with the same doctor the whole time). :D
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
BTW, about that universal health care, the version in my country works pretty well when the problem is something immediately obvious. Break your leg, or something like that. But not immediately obvious can be pretty hit or miss. Long waiting times, not necessarily the same doctor as the previous time, they can't order expensive tests just in case and what gets tested and what not can depend hell of a lot on the doctor, short times for seeing the patient, very busy doctors who probably haven't been able to do much more than glance at the patient's records before seeing him, and all the other obvious problems. Every doctor who can get into the private sector usually does, and most patients who can afford private sector services do.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
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