Wellness or Sell-ness? Check Your Symptoms Here   Leave a comment

The Everyday Health Symptom Checker (http://www.everydayhealth.com/symptom-checker) features a computer-generated intake interview based on a question and answer protocol used in VA hospitals, a process we can recognize as the decision tree Groopman talks about (5). As you work your way through the levels of questions, a video of “Stephen Schueler, MD” repeats the questions and explains associated medical terms. The guidelines qualify the symptom checker as “a computer program and not a live doctor,” a distinction that begs the question “then why the dog and pony show?”

The claim for the efficacy of this diagnostic tool is that is has been used by professionals “for more than eight years,” and it is “100 percent written and maintained by physicians.” I think I could accept a computer program on its own merit as a kind of online medical encyclopedia and a means of filtering general medical knowledge. Having an image and sound of a “live” doctor guide you through a medical interview, though, seems like a direct contradiction to computer-generated algorithms. I question the reasoning behind the presentation and the rhetorical intention of Dr. Schueler’s video clips. Is this an attempt to mimic the diagnostic dialogue of a real doctor visit? Why this attempt to reassure the consumer (and the site visitor is an information consumer) of a personal connection?

Whatever the goal of the site in presenting the video clips, one effect arising from the chatty Dr. Schueler is the illusion of dialogue. You click an answer, he starts talking. Segal notes the “dialogic nature of hypochondria” (82), and this interactive self-diagnosis technology mimics discourse. I check my symptom of a pain in my neck (which I get whenever I work for hours on the computer!), and end up with a suggestion that I might have either a heart attack or angina, and a recommendation that I see a doctor NOW. If I were inclined to stress over my health, this would lead me straight to 911.

When I searched “cyberchondria” on the Everyday Health site, I was encouraged to join a support group to help manage my “anxiety disorder.” My cyberchondria is validated! Other people have it too! And to help even further, the same page advocating a support group also lists some anxiety medications which might help calm me down . . .

Like most of the diagnostic sites I visited, Everyday Health Symptom Checker features advertisements for various OTC and prescription remedies. While Dr. Schueler never mentions medication, the sales pitch is a constant visual. To be fair, the site features sections on food, fitness, community, and wellness tools in addition to the diagnostics, but every section of the site has its own advertisements (Lose weight with V8!). It’s the old medicine show come to town, only instead of trotting onto the scene with a horse and buggy, it now arrives in your PC.

In a 2002 Mother Jones article, Brendan I. Koerner examines how Paxil came to be marketed as an “anti-anxiety” drug for GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). Entering the market late with a drug not that different from other already established treatments, GlaxoSmithKline came up with a plan to sell their product by creating a climate of need. Koerner claims that “marketing a disease rather than selling a drug” is the contemporary, post-Prozac strategy (60).  While self-help diagnostic websites might not have a deliberate ulterior goal of convincing readers to demand drugs from their physicians, the fact that drugs are advertised on the same pages that outline disease choices is problematic: hypochondriac web surfers can discover their ailments and qualify a cure at the same time. Everyday Health Symptom Checker illustrates a self-help/marketing model that neatly abets the reflexive pathology of hypochondria.

Groopman, Jerome. How Doctors Think. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.

Koerner, Brendan I. “Disorders Made to Order.” Mother Jones 27.4 (2002): 58-63. WilsonWeb. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.

Segal, Judy Z. Health and the Rhetoric of Medicine. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. Print.

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Posted September 18, 2010 by MGalbreath in Uncategorized

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