My Laptop Said I Have Brain Cancer

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By Sean Cordry, GW Morristown, TN Director

Ok. Right here, right now, I’m going on-record to admit that I am a major information junkie and a minor hypochondriac. If I get a bad headache, I run right to WebMD, Mayo Clinic online, or some other reputable source. (Sound familiar?) After clicking through several pages and inputting all appropriate symptoms and personal characteristics, it turns out that my headache is either from a brain tumor or I have microcephaly. Since I have a PhD, I clearly do not suffer from an undersized head – quite the opposite in fact. Therefore, I must have brain cancer.

Finding information online about health or medical issues can be valuable – when done judiciously. We’d probably all agree that sites with names like “crystal.pendant.wards.off.gout.com” or “the.frogsnot.cure.doctors.won’t.tellyouabout.com” may be dubious.

Unfortunately, it turns out that even reliable medical sites aren’t so reliable. According to a study led by Dr. Ateev Mehrotra of Harvard University, even symptom checkers from prestigious medical organizations can fail to properly identify medical conditions based on patient symptoms. His study, published in the medical journal BMJ and titled, “Evaluation of symptom checkers for self-diagnosis and triage: audit study,” casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of digital diagnosticians.

So what’s a poor info-jukie like me to do? Here’s some tips.

  1. Let your physician ask the questions. She actually knows what to ask and what questions are relevant.
  2. Let your physician make the diagnosis. She lives in your area and knows that in the spring, you are more likely to have sinus problems than a brain tumor.
  3. Resist diagnosing yourself. You will unconsciously bias your physicians answers toward your own self-diagnosis.
  4. After you have a diagnosis, unleash the info-beast. Now is the time to arm yourself with knowledge.

Online medical help sites can give you good information about your condition, but they can’t tell what ails you. Studies show that your physician gets it right about 90% of the time.

Posted on by Mary Clifton, MD

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