Paging Doctor Internet: Surviving Self-Diagnosis in the Information Age

Jul 18, 2013


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It's been bothering you, hasn't it?

You know what I'm talking about.

That little bump on your arm that looks like a mole. But what if it is something worse? You don't remember it being there last month. Maybe it's just a bug bite. Although it has been bothering you for a few days. So what do you do? Of course you approach this problem like any other rational human with a college degree and a smartphone. You ask the internet.

Welcome to the information age, I hope you brought your shovel and a lie detector.

Page after page of articles and advice begin to fill your screen. The top listing on a Google search for "what's this bump on my arm" is a women's lifestyle site offering halfway decent article on keratosis pilaris or chicken skin. One of the suggested treatments has a mouse over popup ad with some hunk trying to sell me zesty Italian dressing. Apparently one of the side effects of the treatment is you wind up smelling like an Olive Garden. WebMD is further on down the page and offers good sound advice on skin conditions. But the dangerous part about WebMD is they have mastered the art of keeping you on their website. The "Further Reading" list of topics under each article can take you down the rabbit hole of hypochondria in the blink of an eye. Four hours later you are convinced you have leprosy or a rare case of Ecuadorian Dragonfly Malaria.

Then it hits you, what about asking my social networks. Perhaps friends or family who know me or random conference connections from three years ago can help diagnose my problem. Let's see how that plays out. Twitter is no good: 140 characters isn't enough to describe the bump, much less give any useful advice. And it's not worth the risk to click on any link with the hashtag #WhatsThisRash. Besides, you probably don't want your symptoms being retweeted by the @DiseasesWithNoCure account.

Facebook is even worse. Comments range from the useless to the scary:

"My Aunt had a bump on her arm one time. Gangrene set in and they had to remove her kneecaps. She couldn't wear shorts for a year!"

"Bless your heart, get well soon ;-)"

"Emily invited you to play Name That Infection"

And with Facebook rolling out the graph search to everyone now, the auto-complete search phrases are cringe-worthy. (Friends of mine who have had typhoid, Friends who have tagged themselves in inappropriate medical procedure photos, Diseases I Like, etc.)

YouTube is packed with information that seems to fall into two broad categories. Local evening news segments with titles like "Could It Be Cancer? Story at 11" and grainy webcam videos of home remedies such as "How I cured my hangnail with a jar of mustard and a roll of duct tape." The medical news segments do occasionally contain actual doctors in white coats with clipboards but eating right and exercising won't fix that bump on your arm. And listening to the homemaker from Iowa who swears this one old trick from her Memaw cured it right up is probably not safe.

Your ever increasing access to information does not necessarily help you make more intelligent decisions. (I have a copy of the South Beach Diet book somewhere in my house but I will not swap out mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower EVER again.) But if you follow a few basic tips you can safely navigate the info superhighway and still make appropriate decisions with relevant content.

The first and most important thing is to know your source. The Mayo Clinic has a health information symptom checker and several blogs focused on answering your questions. Or you could take medical advice from anonymous Reddit user MyLilBrony42 in an AMA (ask me anything) on weird skin conditions. Advice will vary depending on who you ask.

The second tip is to always double, triple, quadruple check. While studies show that Wikipedia is just as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica it's always good to find additional sources that back up an initial claim. Just because a site looks professional and is well written does not mean it is the truth. Visit The Onion for more examples.

Finally, when in doubt, go see an expert. Yes, a real human... in the flesh. The internet is an amazing place full of vast amounts of information but if you are looking for serious answers, go to the source. All of these treatments, diagnoses, articles, and tips were created by people. Sometimes it's best to go right to the source.

And one last thing, don't worry about that bump on your arm. It's just a scrape.

Trust me, I'm from the internet.