My sister is a hypochondriac. Every ache or pain is dramatized into a mortal illness, possibly even contagious. She should not Google her symptoms — but perhaps you should.
Here’s why. There are very good resources on the Internet for sorting out inconvenient symptoms from fatal ones. These resources are getting even better, with the expansion of improved artificial intelligence in search engines. In the near future, in fact, all doctors will carry the medical knowledge of the world (matched to the IBM Watson AI capabilities) to augment their intuitive and intelligence skills when treating you. While the system still has its bumps, there is little harm jumping in with your own research.
Suppose, for instance, that you have a new pain in your knee. By using digital diagnosis software (as on the Stone Clinic website) you can be guided through common questions about the pain. When did it start? Was there an injury? Did you hear a pop? Is there swelling? Does the knee give way?
When there is an injury to the knee, for example, and you hear a pop and the knee swells, the data indicates there is a 90 percent chance you need surgery, because you have likely torn a key structure in the knee, such as the meniscus or cruciate ligaments. These don’t usually heal on their own and, if left untreated, lead to arthritis.
If, on the other hand, swelling occurs after kneeling — and there is no pop or specific trauma — then most likely ice, soft tissue massage and NSAIDs will resolve the problem. These dramatically different reactions can all be determined by Googling your combination of symptoms, without seeking direct professional help.
Many people don’t recall all their symptoms when asked in an examination room. Taking the time to be guided through various possibilities without time (or cost) pressure allows you to present a full representation of your illness or injury. The more complete your information is, the more likely your diagnosis and treatment will be accurate. And as such tools for diagnostic specificity improve, our use of in-person medical services should become less frequent and more targeted.
In the past, doctors were wary of patients who came in with stacks of papers, newspaper articles and Reader’s Digest articles, describing their diagnosis and home cures. Rolling their eyes, the doctors couldn’t wait for the speech to be over so they could get to the real business of doctoring.
What has changed is that, now, everyone has access to top quality information. Patients can be stunningly well informed — and the more so, usually, the better.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.