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.


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.


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.


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.

scientist at large

Dear economobiker and jz-md;

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


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," 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?

scientist at large

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

Ed Kay

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.


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.



The issue isn't really that straightforward. I know that some patients don't think to search for information about certain diseases unless they see a commercial. While I'm sure that generates lots of false positives, increased awareness can also reach patients more easily that may not have been aware of possible health conditions they may have or could encounter. The recent HPV vaccine campaign comes to mind as an example of this.

Also, sometimes it isn't immediately obvious who is controlling the information that ends up on websites. A lot of companies have their own information websites that come up when users search for information on a specific condition.

So what's the right answer? I'm not sure, but I think saying less industry involvement, more public involvement isn't necessarily the way to go. I think encouraging more overall involvement in getting information out to the public from all parts of society is the only way that we can learn about how medical information can be communicated effectively.



this reminds me of the old priestly argument against translating the bible for the people- that they might get the wrong interpretations of god's word- truth is, healing is a joint venture between doctor and patient- any doctor will tell you that a more knowledgable patient is a better patient- sorry, but the argument here smacks against a democratic ethos- a better point would be to foster peer-reviewed sites ( there will always be marketing static on the web, but that doesn't change the primal ethic of democratizing medicine


@10 frankenduf,

I'm smiling. I considered the same "bible" analogy. Prior to the 1500s, Catholics relied upon their educated priests to interpret the bible in the context of learned Roman, Greek, and Jewish history. We still have problems interpreting the bible today, because few of us know the historical context.

Nonspecific symptoms do not lend themselves to lay interpretation. Many false positives, as Erin stated.



Well I think that some of the "lay" public is that way because of one reason - information asymmetry. Yes, there is a lot of information on the web - but not the information that say a "lay" scientist or "lay" statistician would want.

Most of the valuable information to me about my condition would involve clinical trials and numbers about the relative prevelance of a sympton and so forth. Doctors have a big incentive to keep this information behind pay walls.

If I have to listen to one more condescending medical practitioner it will be my last. The information they have may be better than mine, but all it takes is a trip down history lane to know that it will not be the "whole story".

All of this talk about information overload and tv shows like House also has a pernicious effect on the medical profession. It seems like anymore doctors only learn how to diagnose and the treatment part of the equation is left out. Diagnose, drug, repeat. Any idea on feedback from the patient is left out and when asked about a drug's effectiveness all they trot out is the clinical trial. And yet they could have TONS of data - if they only had a better relationship with their patients.


Eric M. Jones

I am going to get a Freakonomics reputation as, "there he is again...telling us about the cyberspace tidal wave that will sweep everything away"....But it is true.

The internet has certainly affected the medical world even now. But one of the problems is that basic medical tests are now hard or impossible to port into the internet or programs. But soon you may be able to buy an internet connected device to send all the relevant information to a program.

There's nothing so strange about cyber-doctors. I would be surprised if some enterprising doctors haven't used internet cameras to look at skin lesions etc. There are thousands of routine problems that could be prescribed for--asking only a few questions and maybe a doing a simple test or two.

I once had a physician who, when I called for an appointment, would often advice me just to stay home and take aspirin or whatever. This makes sense to me as my current physician's waiting room is generally full of kids with colds and flu. How hard would a computer have to work to get the same result?

By the way...Gregory House M.D. lives at 221B Baker Street, and other Sherlock Holmes (Homes) tie-ins are scattered throughout the series. Dr. John Watson... Dr. James Wilson, his drug addiction, His "Baker Street Irregulars", Playing music only for himself, and hey! solving mysteries.


scientist at large

Dear Erin;

FYI. (though I recall mentioning this before) My dad was really sick some time ago. He was in the hospital and they sent him home. I went to the medical library at Columbia University Presbyterian Medical center, they have all the journal articles listed. Went article to article and found out who was doing research, when and where. Called the few doctors who appeared to be knowledgeable re my dad's symptoms and one called my dad's doctor- back he went into the hospital and was put on intravenous. He had a disease that only diebetics get and so few get it that the numbers are listed. Well that saved his' life. On line is good for introductory information, but then I would suggest for more complicated matters that you go to a local hospital affiliated medical school library. It pays. My dad lived another 10 years.

PS- I am not an MD and going through these articles was rough- alot I did not understand, but the little that I did know seemed to be enough.


James K

Well, this very topic was done to death on Freakonomics not long ago.

"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."

Doctors go through exactly the same thing when they study, becoming convinced that they are suffering from every disorder they learn about. They get over it.

Medical information has been available in libraries for years. It was always there, just a little more difficult to access.

I think you're wrong about pretty much everything. More patient knowledge will probably mean more thorough and responsive doctors. I don't see why doctors feel so threatened by self-diagnosis. Do mechanics get angry when people work out what's wrong with their cars?


Another interesting phenomenon which has come out of all of the DIY-diagnosis websites is that after diagnosing themselves using common symptoms, people can (in certain conditions) start to develop the other more distinctive symptoms associated with the condition they think they have. That is, even if they don't have the condition, if they really believe that they have it and have knowledge of the symptoms, their body tricks itself into developing those very symptoms.

Previous cases of this are often women believing they are pregnant, and so their bodies change as if they really were pregnant. It would be really interesting to see whether the advent of DIY-diagnosis sites have increased the incidence of these sorts of condition as a result of providing all of the detailed symptoms.

Heather S

This reminds me of the same troublesome effects of direct-to-consumer television advertisements, which portray the ease of prescribing your own medication. Something I've even found myself doing...

The problem is that, while these powerful advertisements are aimed at informing, the only real benefit drawn from them is collected in green by the pharmaceutical companies. And, worse, the advertisements often lead consumers to misdiagnose themselves, causing them to believe that they NEED the vast array of medications that are, simply put, right at their fingertips.

How is this okay?

Until something is universally done about health care in this country, the pharmaceutical industry will stand to remain a business like any other business: profit-driven and consumer-based.


My experience is the exact opposite. In my family, our own medical research has been critical in getting useful diagnoses from our medical practitioners. Yes, there have been a couple of blind alleys, but overall our track record of unnecessary tests to fruitful tests has been extraordinarily low for tests that we've requested as compared to those that our doctors have ordered on their own.

There are no medical professionals in my family.


There was an interesting example of this on NPR's All Things Considered 2008-12-30:


Put my name in the "disagree" section too.

If you have mild but worrying symptoms, website recommendations can convince you that you need a doctor before worsening conditions finally do the trick. I'd be surprised if very many people in actual need of a doctor decided against it following a web search.