Diagnosing digital symptoms

In the past few months, I’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, West Nile virus and ovarian cancer. But I’m fine. My only serious problem is a fixation with WebMD’s symptom checker—an online program that suggests all sorts of afflictions based on user-reported symptoms.

I’m not alone.

A Gizmodo story calls WebMD’s iPad app “a hypochondriac’s nightmare.” Several blogs relate accounts of WebMD-induced paranoia, including one woman’s “brain tumor” that turned out to be allergies.

And WebMD isn’t the only one. Typing symptoms into Google leads to message boards upon message boards. They ooze with diagnoses, similar stories and panic: sometimes so severe that it seems to impair basic grammar skills.

Even the perpetrators themselves admit it. A WebMD article about “Cyberchondria” cites Brian Fallon’s book “Phantom Illness: Recognizing, Understanding and Overcoming Hypochondria.

“For hypochondriacs, the Internet has absolutely changed things for the worse,” Fallon writes.

But hypochondriacs aren’t the only ones at risk. Simply browsing top stories on Google News can lead to a slippery slope of self-diagnosis.

A highly viewed Telegraph Sunday reported that “mobile phone users (are) suffering from ‘text neck,'” an “affliction” that can cause “permanent arthritic damage” without treatment.

And then there’s the recent thriller “Contagion” a film about the almost instantaneous spread of a deadly epidemic that leaves me too self-conscious to even cough on the light rail.

Author Susan Baur put it simply in her book “Hypochondria: Woeful Imaginings. “There is a modern fascination with both health and illness,” she wrote. “Illness seems to be ‘the central human dilemma.'”

However, I don’t mean to suggest that the increasing wealth of health knowledge is not something to be celebrated. “The easy availability of health information on the Web has certainly helped countless people make educated decisions about their health and medical treatment,” states WebMD’s article about Cyberchondria.

But the article adds that this availability “can be disastrous for people who are likely to worry.” Knowledge is power — when used correctly.

But for many, access to new medical knowledge stops when the computer goes off. The opportunities to worry about what might be wrong are far greater than the opportunities to formally address these concerns.

For uninsured students, getting sick on campus creates quite a conundrum. It could just be lack of sleep or caffeine withdrawal during finals week. But it could be a sinus infection in need of antibiotic treatment.

And according to ASU’s website, a single uninsured visit to Campus Health Services costs $75 alone. Throw in the cost of tests and medicine, and the sum far surpasses a typical student’s surplus funds.

At this point, the moral of the story could be to purchase health insurance. However, Aetna Student Insurance, the primary plan made available to ASU students, costs over $1600 a year. That’s a sizeable chunk of cash to spend as a student who might get sick.

Furthermore, this insurance comes with exceptions. Along with contraceptive medicine and most podiatry work, the Aetna’s coverage excludes nearly all dentistry—an important branch of medicine.

In September, a 24-year-old Cincinnati man died when a wisdom tooth infection spread to his brain. He knew about the infection, but he had no insurance or spare cash to pay for surgery, or even for antibiotics.

For young adults with new wisdom teeth, dental work is imperative. And for human beings with afflictions — real or imagined — access to more than health websites is imperative too. WebMD’s symptom checker might be pretty nifty, but it’s not saving any lives.


Reach the columnist at algrego1@asu.edu.


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