Dig if you will a picture: You’ve noticed a lump in your throat. It’s not a painful lump but you can vaguely feel that it’s constantly there. Over a month or so it doesn’t go away, so you embark on some amateur pathology via the internet to see what you can find out. Before you’ve even had a chance to click on any links, this is what you’re struck with:
Immediately confronted with the big C-word, you flea to Bing to try that search engine. Unfortunately, it’s no less terrorizing.
You don’t even need to search for something as specific as lump in throat to get a digital death sentence. Type in something vague like “green spots” and you’re immediately greeted with an onslaught of health information.
Looking up a medical symptom isn’t the same as looking up the definition of “tergiversation” on Merriam-Webster.com or searching for examples of neo-liberalism on Wikipedia. Medical diagnoses aren’t compartmentalized. Plus, there’s a reason that medical training for doctors is so intense and exhaustive (and exhausting if you are a doctor-to-be). The human body is a bizarre set of puzzle pieces and nobody’s pieces are really made the same, either. Further, the more serious your potential illness may be, the less you probably wan’t to gamble with the internet’s standardized archive of information.
The internet was expected to bridge the distance between patients and physicians but instead it turns out that the deluge of information can inspire skepticism and fear, according to a new study from the University of Buffalo. In the study, “The Devil You Know: Parental Online Information Seeking after a Pediatric Cancer Diagnosis,” researchers found that parents and caregivers of cancer-stricken children prefer the traditional visits to the doctor’s office over online searches for information about their child’s illness.
“Respondents were telling us they were uncertain of the information online and that they were afraid of the unknown,” said Dr. Elizabeth Gage, the study’s co-author and professor of community health and behavior. “They didn’t want to run into stories about ‘the worst case scenario.”
Gage, along with her co-researcher Christina Panagakis, a graduate student, interviewed 41 parents of children with cancer to find out how much they relied on the internet as a source of information about their child’s illness, prognosis, and treatment. While the interviewees for this study opted for real-person consultation with a doctor, that’s not to say that the internet doesn’t have some value in medical treatment.
The information-seeking behavior of parents and other caregivers appears to be influenced by the volume of available information, Gage says. Patients with routine illnesses might find minor details online that better inform their conversations with health care providers, but respondents in this study who were confronting a more serious diagnosis were overwhelmed by the often conflicting sources of online material.
This is all supposing that you even have the option to visit a doctor. It’s inconceivably expensive to pay for a doctor’s visit out-of-pocket and if you’re one of the millions of people who don’t have medical insurance, your only lifeline very well might be two take two Google searches and call in in the morning (well, that and a pair of crossed fingers). In that case, you’re left to the merciless horror flood of intimidating if not terrorizing medical information that abounds whenever you search medical symptoms so hopefully you’re symptoms aren’t something as mysterious as a lump in the throat or, god forbid, “green spots.” Who knows what fresh new psychological hell you’ll be left victim to.