Medical Info Overload?

We recently ran a bleg about dealing with too much data.

That bleg prompted the following note from a reader named Geoff Barry:

I had a thought on when it can be truly negative — even unhealthy.

Too much medical information at a layman’s fingertips can actually be detrimental, both for the doctor treating the patient and for the patient himself. The body’s major presenting symptoms — headaches, body aches, sore throat, runny nose, etc. — often are part and parcel of many diseases. Medical sites like WebMD allow the patient to peruse, based on symptoms, what he may have.

Without an intervening specialist to aggregate everything the body is telling the patient, the patient can be led down the wrong path, develop anxiety around imaginary medical issues, or even demand that the doctor test him for something he thinks he may have. In an era of rising costs and a shrinking number of general practitioners, a more acutely aware patient public could turn out to be a bad thing, for the patient and for the industry.

Of course, I’m not negating the positive effects of this information — especially for those who have already been properly diagnosed. It can help family members understand diagnoses, limit disinformation, and lead the patient toward additional treatment alternatives. But as someone who has (more than once) hopped onto WebMD and been assaulted by a litany of disorders that I immediately began to exhibit (in my head) symptoms of, too much medical information can be a bad thing without a professional to sort through it with.

Geoff raises a bunch of points that we’ve touched on before, including the fact that doctors rarely use e-mail with patients and the pros and cons of patient social networks like iMedix.

But what it most reminded me of was a passage in a book by Thomas Gilovich called How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Here’s the section I’m thinking of (go to page 127), which discusses how patients (and doctors) are often really bad at figuring out what “cures” them because so often, illnesses “are self-limited — i.e., they are cured by the body’s own healing processes without assistance from medical science.”

One of Gilovich’s very good points is that people generally seek medical help when their symptoms are peaking — which, as it turns out, is right about the time the illness is retreating on its own.

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  1. econobiker says:

    My personal opinion is that website medical information is a much better investment than the millions spent on drug pushing commercials. At least the searcher is actively participating in research of a health issue versus advertising blinded consumers who think a pill or injection is ok because it was “As Seen On TV”.

    Just go and watch the “Medical Mysteries” tv shows and you will see how self-limiting some doctor’s knowledge seems to be. One must be his/her own health advocate and if that involves a web medical search then so be it.

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  2. jz-md says:

    Superb comments by Geoff Barry.

    Traditional media health care journalists function like carnival barkers to hawk “news” rather than comprehensive information.
    This fuels the hypochondriacs, who then waste their PCPs time.

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  3. intricatenick says:

    The self-limiting part of this post is intriguing. Can medical science impact this – speed it up or slow it down? If it could, how could this be measured? It would seem to be difficult to explain percentages of variation between the effects – especially when you consider that in a cohort you will have many different enviornemntal variables that will affect the self-limiting part of healing.

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  4. scientist at large says:

    Dear economobiker and jz-md;

    True-True- and so true that there is no time to waste with these superficial matters-

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  5. AaronS says:

    Proverbs says that “Wisdom crieth in the streets.” Very simply, there is medical wisdom everywhere–but because it is not assimilated in a single place, it is something like a puzzle. You read a study and ask for treatment is cutting edge…for 1975.

    There needs to be some way to have the latest, greatest information at our fingertips, even while referencing the old stuff. Something of a “meta WebMD.com,” I suppose, that captures all the medical info on each issue, analyzes it to ensure that most current information, best treatments, etc. are showing, and so forth.

    I would add another idea…. I love “House, M.D.” Wouldn’t it be great if there was a 24-hour web conference going on at all times where doctors could submit difficult or emergency cases that they can’t figure out…and receive the brainpower of perhaps hundreds of the worlds best doctors?

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  6. scientist at large says:

    I should say, join us if you have not already.

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  7. Ed Kay says:

    With an intervening specialist to aggregate everything the body is telling the patient, the patient can be led down the wrong path, and be subjected to unnecessary, wrong, dangerous and even fatal surgeries, drug and other treatments. In an era of rising costs and a shrinking number of general practitioners, a more acutely aware patient public could prevent these mistakes and negligence and turn out to be a very good thing, for the patient and for the industry.

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  8. Chris says:

    Not a typical case, but my mom had a series of incorrect diagnoses before eventually getting diagnoses with Scleroderma. To people other than Gregory House, it’s just not a disease that one thinks of, and a number of other autoimmune disorders can present similar or identical symptoms (lupus, for example). Thankfully, she had the internet and she could keep researching her diagnoses and symptoms as well as finding other specialists who were willing to look at her and eventually get some treatment.

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