FamilyDoctor.org versus Family Doctor   Leave a comment

One of the interesting things about this assignment is that we are all pre-assuming that these medical sites will give faulty, over-exaggerated diagnoses that will panic their users and cause them to pester doctors for no valid reason, a condition that sounded suspiciously like tech-based hypochondria. Seeing as how the condition of hypochondria is more rhetoric-based than scientific, my goal was to first challenge the notion of “cyberchondria” rather than assume it exists.

I decided to run a test to see if the base assumption of inaccuracy is true. As I mentioned in class, I have several food allergies that went undiagnosed until I was 25 since all my symptoms were either blamed on my asthma, or doctors would assume I was making symptoms up to avoid going to school.

So I figured that if these sites over-exaggerate their diagnoses, none of them would tell me that I have allergies or asthma, and instead would suggest things like chest cancer or heart attack to explain my migraines and chest pains.

The first site I tested was FamilyDoctor.org, which uses flowcharts to lead users to a diagnosis. I used the flow chart for chest pain, located here:

http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/tools/symptom/524.html

The flow chart lead me straight to asthma. In fact, allergies are not even on the chart, making a correct diagnosis impossible. Still, it is interesting that the site made the same misdiagnosis as its real-world counterparts, and the problem here might be that I could only look at one symptom at a time.

Next I looked at wrongdiagnosis.com, which gave me the option of looking up more than one symptom. To my surprise, allergies actually showed up. It showed up as search result number 29 on a list of 402, and then only as airborne allergies not food allergies, but still it was closer to diagnosing what I actually have. In fact, adding “asthma-like symptoms” to the list of symptoms puts airborne allergies as the number one search result.

Finally I checked WebMD.com, and to my surprise it was not nearly as alarmist as I thought it would be. In fact, until I added “chest pain” to the list of symptoms, “allergic reaction” was one of the top condition results. Unfortunately the top result, even when I added migraines to the list, was still asthma.

This adds a sad level of complication when added to the rhetoric surrounding how cyberchondria is being treated by doctors, rhetoric that Genevieve posted on in detail. Unfortunately, cyberchondira might be the new hypochondria in more ways than one. While it is possible for bad research and faulty database search engines to cause paranoia, the initial reason for people using these engines is very real and often serious. The fact that these engines habitually gave me not only the wrong diagnosis but the same wrong diagnosis as my real-world doctors somewhat dispels the assumption that these sites do more harm than doctors do good.

For further research, it would be interesting to see how many studies have tested the accuracy of these sites in the way I just did, taking specific cases of doctor misdiagnosis and seeing if the internet could do better. Until the accuracy of these sites can be gauged, it seems unfair to believe that symptoms are “all in a patient’s head”. Our previous reading have shown how labeling a patient this way can affect accurate diagnosis.

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Posted September 21, 2010 by capochetta in Uncategorized

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