The other day, I had a patient, a dear old lady who’s been in our practice for a long time.
Her presenting complaints were a rash on the fingers of her left hand.
But things were not what they seemed. To her, this was a dreadful condition. It was staph. It was flesh-eating bacteria. It was every conceivable dreadful, horrific, affliction one could imagine. She was going to lose her fingers, she thought. And her hand. Then her arm. She was almost in panic.
I took one look at the rash and pronounced my verdict in 15 seconds flat: a form of hand eczema.
She didn’t believe it. You see, she had been reading her stuff off the internet.
There is a name for this condition: cyberchondria!
We see more and more of this. Patients who come in to see physicians, after already having self-diagnosed their ailment. Via the internet.
Now, of course, there’s lots of good stuff on the web. But there’s probably more bad stuff out there than good. Multiplying patients’ worries and snowballing their anxieties. Cyberchondria: “an unfounded anxiety concerning one's wellness brought on by visiting health and medical websites.”
Seventy-two percent of Americans use online searches for information on everything from car repairs to growing bonsai. (It was 52% in 2002.) It is particularly high for those scouring the web for health-related information—80%. And almost all of them conclude—rightly or wrongly—that they have a serious medical malady. Their fingers are falling off!
Self-diagnosis often doesn’t work. We have far too many blind spots, to few good sources of self-help information.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.
Of course, one shouldn’t be chastised for taking responsibility for one’s health, so this self-diagnosing is not altogether a bad thing. Researching conditions on reputable websites may actually be helpful, a positive step for patients to understand their condition and be proactive about its care and cure. Educated patients, I find, are the best patients to have.
But cyberchondria can be quite a problem. All my education and expertise avails for nothing. They want this test and that. An MRI and a PET scan. Right away.
Then I have to use my charm (OK, OK, you don’t have to say it) and my counseling skills to convince cyberchondriacs I know what I’m talking about and that they don’t need extensive testing to rule out flesh-eating bacteria when it’s only eczema. Trust me!
And, surprisingly, some of them do!
The rest embark on the search for a physician who will concur with their self-diagnosis, consuming everyone’s time, valuable resources, and energy.
For the time will come when
they will not endure sound doctrine;
but wanting to have their ears tickled,
they will accumulate for themselves teachers
in accordance to their own desires,
and will turn away their ears from the truth
and will turn aside to myths.
2 Timothy 4:3–4
Sounds like he knew a cyberchondriac or two!
In the Christian life it works the other way: we are easily misled, thinking we are OK, when we actually are not.
Therefore let him who thinks he stands
take heed that he does not fall.
1 Corinthians 10:12
So being accountable is important. We need to listen to those who know us well—parents, teachers, mentors, spouses, friends, elders, …
Remember those who led you,
who spoke the word of God to you.
Obey your leaders and submit,
for they keep watch over your souls.
Hebrews 13:7, 17