Cyberchondria: The ‘Doctor Google’ Effect
By Sanjay Pinto


Gargling is better than googling antibiotics when you have a sore throat. Here’s a spot poll. How many of us end up going online to glean information on our symptoms? My hand is up! Most of us would have a wild card entry into the world of Cyberchondria, a cousin of hypochondria, which is an obsession with apprehensions about health, often unfounded. I’m told students of medicine in their first year of study may feel like they have many a disease that they read about. The fact is that symptoms can be like googlies and only a trained medical practitioner can diagnose the actual condition, with a reasonable degree of accuracy. When medicine itself is considered an inexact science, a layperson indulging in guesswork and self medication, sometimes aided and abetted by chemists in pharmacies, can set off alarm bells for no reason.

This is not limited to self medication. The temptation to go online for tablets prescribed by our doctors is another story. Not just online but also the leaflets in microscopic print that accompany capsule boxes, usually for general information and possibly as a sort of legal prophylaxis. My close family friend and doctor Naveen Bhat at Chandini Clinic, once mentioned to me that if we were to google even common vitamin pills, the side effects can be frightening. Another buddy and school mate Dr. Raajiv Dorai, Urologist at Hande Hospital, often reminds me that a single paracetamol tablet can cause liver failure. What this means is that every medication can cause the most uncommon and bizarre side effects that all we can do is avoid an overdose or indiscriminate use sans medical supervision.

On the subject of side effects, I remember what another Don Bosco mate Dr.Naveen Chowdary Tummala, an Orthopedician, had posted on facebook. There are patients who would ask a hundred questions about side effects of a single course of antibiotics but wouldn’t bat an eyelid about the known deleterious ‘side effects’ of drinking and smoking! A fear of even rare side effects of a drug may make some patients discontinue antibiotics before the course is over, making them susceptible to antibiotic resistance, which is a community health hazard. 

Recently, my family was in for a scare. One of us had a vertical black line at the side of a toe nail. When we were asked to consult a dermatologist, we succumbed to the temptation of ‘doctor google’. What it elicited caused us immense pyschological trauma. The results that showed up ranged from a simple fungal infection to linear melanonychia to the dreaded subungal melanoma, which is a lethal form of nail or skin cancer. It didn’t look like a fungal infection. There was no known injury to have caused melanonychia. The google results pointed to the worst scenario. We prayed to Jesus for miraculous healing. Our prayers were answered. God sent an angel in the form of  Dermatologist Dr.Murugusundram, Founder of the Chennai Skin Foundation & Yesudian Skin Research Centre, recommended overnight by Mrs.Swetambari, mother in law of my wife’s friend Abarna. Although Dr.Murugusundram ruled out our worst fear, we suggested a biopsy, not wanting to take chances. A biopsy report can take upto ten days. Imagine our agony during this period. By God’s grace and mercy, the result was negative, much to our relief. Praise Him. The dermatologist revealed that he sees cases where patients insist on a biopsy, even when it is not called for at all, and the other extreme of folks unwilling to do the test even when it is strongly recommended.

(Pic: Dr. S. Murugusundram, Dermatologist)

A simple headache may be migraine or even indicate a brain tumour. Chest discomfort, as my classmate at Don Bosco and cardiologist Dr.Sanjay Cherian explains, may range from a gastric cause to an actual heart attack. Let the doctor make that call as to when tests and investigation or even hospitalisation is required. 

In this age of instant information, you can’t blame patients entirely. And while google is often a boon to many of us, its top search results on medical queries need to be examined by health care professionals, to make articles that show up in the first page more credible, comprehensive, accurate and perhaps less alarming,with a possible statutory disclaimer on every article: “Symptoms must be co-related with clinical examination.” Half knowledge can be the most hazardous side effect.

 (Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)



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