You don't get enough essential fatty acids, which may have something to do with the hair loss. You may also have intestinal candidiasis. That headache you're experiencing? Clearly a brain tumor.
Playing doctor again on your computer screen, are you? You're not alone: Self-diagnosis on the Internet is bigger than ever, though many doctors will tell you the problems and confusion it's creating are also getting bigger.
Try, for instance, treating yourself to an in-depth virtual-medical survey on diagnose-me.com, a website dedicated to online health and wellness evaluation. It went live in 2003, designed to meet "a need for a much wider, deeper and objective evaluation of patient symptoms than a doctor consultation could provide."
"The system was originally developed as a doctor's aid," says Stefan Muth, 20-year IT veteran and founder of Diagnose Me. "It was created to acquire significant amounts of information from each patient prior to their visit without using up the doctor's time. But it quickly became clear that it could serve more than just a few doctor's offices."
And it has: Diagnose Me receives an estimated half-million unique page views every month. Tens of thousands of people have anted up to $77 for the 925-question survey, which asks anything and everything: What is your ethnic background? Do you sweat at night? Have you done any dust-producing work in pre-1970 buildings? Apparently users don't mind the comprehensive approach: The satisfaction rate is just above 99 percent.
These statistics underscore a simple 21st century truth: With doctor's offices often resembling cattle calls, and HMO and PPO joining IRS and DMV in the seventh ring of acronym hell, going online for medical advice has become an appealing alternative. And it's also a cheap resource for the uninsured: 800,000 people in Maryland—roughly 15 percent of the population—don't have health insurance.
"I recently had a patient come in with a one-inch thick folder filled with Internet printouts, wanting to go through every one," says Dr. Marc I. Leavey, a Lutherville-based internist who has been practicing since 1977. "Thirty years ago, the doctor said, 'I'll tell you what's wrong with you. Don't ask questions.' But with the growth of the Internet, people want to participate more. They come in telling us what pill they want to take. Some doctors will kick you out on your rear for that."
WebMD, the largest and most visited medical website (48 million unique monthly users) wants nothing to do with self-diagnosis—you would have to call it something else. Dr. Michael Smith, WebMD's chief medical editor, was asked to comment on the trend of self-diagnosis, not the act of self-diagnosis. His spokesperson replied via e-mail: "Because the story is about diagnosis in general, it is not something we feel comfortable addressing." So the word self-diagnosis is off limits. Can we call it elf-say iagnosis-day?
Why all the paranoia? Because many in the medical community view Internet diagnoses as high-bandwidth snake oil. Has Diagnose Me received much feedback from physicians? "Some doctors embrace the system whereas others appear to be hostile to the inroads that technology is making in their domain," says Muth.
"The Internet can be a real and true partner in healthcare," says Leavey, the Lutherville physician, but he adds that technology cannot replicate a personal touch. "The range of human pathology is enormous," Dr. Leavey explains. "A lump can be something or nothing. A pain can be something or nothing. Only by knowing a patient can a physician recommend the right treatment."
Sure, doctors can spend excruciatingly long periods of time searching for an answer. Meanwhile, it takes the Internet less than 12 hours to figure out we lack essential fatty acids. But try getting the World Wide Web on the phone for a follow-up question. It's nearly impossible.
Hate to run but, it's time to get back on the computer: We need to Google up a cure for that dengue fever we just diagnosed ourselves with.