Saturday, October 2, 2010

Doctor online: Don’t get caught in the web Anthony F. D’Silva (Life)

Hundreds of thousands of people who are sick of paying doctors’ hefty fees are said to be turning to the Internet for free medical consultation, much to the chagrin of the medical fraternity.

No doubt, the Internet scores over the doctor in several ways: it is packed with useful (and not-so-useful) information as well as some valuable (and sometimes unwanted) advice on every ailment under the sun.

You Google something as innocuous as ‘common cold’ and you get 25 million results in 0.06 seconds, faster than it takes to spell the name of your family doctor. With the Web at our command, do we really need the doctor? The Net tells you much more about ailments and treatments than the entire medical staff of a large hospital could provide. And it is all free and quick, and comes without those mandatory, and often unnecessary, tests like blood tests, throat swabs, and others.

Having pain in the legs and arms? Ask the Internet, and perhaps you will be told that it could be arthritis or something more esoteric like Buerger’s Disease or Klinefelter’s Syndrome. The Net will help you understand more about these ailments.

Maybe, your problem is digestive disorders. It is likely you are suffering from any of the 50 different illnesses in this category, such as Lynch Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, gallstones and peptic ulcers. Take your pick. Recently, in my case, a bout of overeating led to a severe heartburn. The all-knowing Google informed me that heartburn, also known as acid reflux, is a common phenomenon (nice consolation), and went on to explain how it is caused, enlightening me on terms like oesophagus, gullet and endoscopy. Then the bloggers, that army of people who wash their dirty linen and pour out their secrets in cyber space, recommended home remedies such as apple cider vinegar, baking soda, peppermint tea, green tea and mustard.

A further search yielded a whole list of drugs for this ailment, each one claiming to be better than the other. Then there was this website that attempted to silence all the protagonists of conventional medicines by claiming to have found a remedy to ‘end all of your digestive problems FOREVER.’ No more drugs, tests, endoscopy, etc. But there was a catch. Buy this book for just $39.95 and say goodbye to your heartburn.

Some days back, I began to get acute pain in the toes. A Web search warned me that it could be the start of gout, an ailment caused by excess uric acid in the body, and threatened me of dire consequences if I did not stop eating red meats, certain types of fish and all things delicious.

It is true that the common man is today more knowledgeable about medical conditions than some of the doctors. The flipside is that too much knowledge in the hands of amateurs is a dangerous thing. It is alright to use all our Internet knowledge to impress the doctor, but the more you browse the more confused you get, and could end up being a wreck, haunted by imaginary illnesses. The dangers of medical advice from the Net is that it can turn any normal person into a hypochondriac. You get some slight pain in the chest and you start imagining the worst. A Google search tells you that ‘some people have a heart attack without experiencing pain’ and somewhere else they tell you that someone somewhere has a heart attack every two minutes.

The net result of using the Net for medical consultancy is disaster. It is certainly good to enhance one’s medical knowledge by browsing the Web, and there is merit in learning from bloggers who have found relief from ailments, but this one-size-fits-all approach can backfire.

I have no sympathy for the medical fraternity and most of them deserve to be replaced and sidelined, but I do not recommend a total boycott of the medical practitioner. Use your Web-based medical knowledge to enjoy better health, but under no condition tell the doctor that he is becoming a disposable commodity. He could take his revenge on your next visit.

Anthony F. D’Silva is a Dubai-based writer and media relations consultant

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