Cyberchondriacs

Generation DIY turns to self-diagnosing to save money.

America's most popular doctor doesn't have terrible handwriting and doesn't make you cool your heels reading tattered copies of last fall's golf magazines. He doesn't abandon you and your bare ass, wrapped only in an absurd paper smock, in some cramped chamber with lurid charts of diseased organs festooned on the walls.

Dr. Google is his name, and you can always read his handwriting and he doesn't fine you if you can't make it to an appointment. Hell, Dr. Google still makes house calls, and he is available 24/7.

And a lot of us today — particularly if we're in our twenties — have a damn-near unshakable faith in His Holy Writ.

Observing a virtual visit to Dr. Google left Kurt Brennan shaking his head in wonder.
Aaron M. Sprecher
Observing a virtual visit to Dr. Google left Kurt Brennan shaking his head in wonder.
Though she looks healthy, 28-year-old bartender Josie Gardner has stroke-level blood pressure. If only she could afford to see a cardiologist...
John Nova Lomax
Though she looks healthy, 28-year-old bartender Josie Gardner has stroke-level blood pressure. If only she could afford to see a cardiologist...

To say he is literally everybody's first-call doctor exaggerates the matter only a little. A 2008 Microsoft study found that one of every 50 total Web queries was health-­related, and one-quarter of the million people in the study had embarked on at least one health-related search over the course of the study.

Even other doctors confer with Dr. Google, and what's more, with pretty good results. A 2006 Australian study presented a team of doctors with 26 batches of symptoms which they then took to the Net, and Dr. Google accurately diagnosed 15 of them, even though they had been selected for their difficulty.

Dr. Hangwi Tang, the leader of the Australian research team, stressed that the results of the Google searches needed to be interpreted by a "human expert." Laypeople, Dr. Tang stressed, would have less success.

In a Harris County Hospital District press release on this very subject, Casa de Amigos medical director Dr. Yasmeen Quadri said that people don't do themselves any favors by looking on the Internet. "Their symptoms might match a particular illness, but there are several diagnoses that have similar symptoms."

Problems with this mind-set cut both ways. Sometimes, people misdiagnose downward by convincing themselves that the early signs of a serious illness are instead symptoms of something less dangerous. On the other hand, Ryen White and Eric Horvitz, the authors of the 2008 Microsoft study, found that many Web searches cause people to mistake benign ailments like headaches for devastating ones like brain tumors. They call these people "cyberchondriacs," and say that the condition is growing.

Local record store owner Kurt Brennan has seen Dr. Google — or, in this case, an even less-qualified Internet medical "expert" — misused in just the manner doctors Tang and Quadri feared. About a year ago, Brennan was trolling through the daily messages at local indie rock message board Hands Up Houston when he came upon a highly sophisticated spin on a visit to Dr. Google's office.

"Some kid had a spider bite and was concerned that it might have been a brown recluse," Brennan remembers. "So he posted a photo he got on-line asking for people's opinions."

Brennan says he couldn't stop laughing when he ran through the thought process. "First, research spiders on the Internet. Then download photo of possible perpetrator. Post spider picture on message board...wait, he's gotta go to Photobucket first. Then have your possibly dangerous spider bite diagnosed over the Internet by a 22-year-old who works at Buffalo Exchange."

For ten years, and even today now that he has a good job with a subcontractor for the VA, a local musician we'll call Sam (for reasons that will become apparent later) has depended on Dr. Google for his medical care. Sam spent about ten years — roughly between 1998 and last year — uninsured, though he occasionally rose to the ranks of the woefully underinsured.

"I had some stomach problems for years, but I never went to see anybody," he says. Based on what he could glean from the Internet, and from old-fashioned books, Sam learned to get a handle on those, at least for a time. "I just kinda changed eating habits, and looked for other ways to address my symptoms."

In addition to consulting with Dr. Google, Sam had enough snap to talk to real-live experts. "I asked friends who were in med school, and I have a cousin who is a surgeon in an emergency room in a different state. I would call him and ask, 'Hey man, is there something I can do other than going to the doctor?' So definitely the Internet, but also social network and just whoever was around, before I would actually go somewhere."

Such meandering troubles doctors. "That is a concern as a physician — patients waiting too long to be seen," says Dr. Chris Benton, a former resident at Ben Taub Hospital. "That is something I've seen quite a bit of at Ben Taub. Young patients don't often have regular physicians. They don't have a primary-care doctor. By the time they present to us, it's out of necessity. They have to be seen, they have to go to the hospital. And that's when they show up."
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Josie Gardner is only 28, and outwardly healthy-looking, but two months ago she was diagnosed with sky-high blood pressure.

"My doctor told me it was at stroke level for my age, and it is not going down," she says. The brunette bartender at Heights-area bar Big Star was referred by her GP to a cardiologist, but since she has no insurance, she has been delaying and dreading that visit ever since. "I've been putting it off and putting it off, because of the money," she says. "What are they gonna do? All these tests? That will be thousands of dollars."

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