Several years ago I seriously injured my finger in a logging accident. I put some antiseptic on it and bandaged it up, but after a few days it began to give off the stench of dead rat. So, with little fanfare I went to my computer and did a Google search on “stinky finger.” I promptly learned that the damaged tissue had become necrotic – it was dying from lack of blood supply and other nutrients. The effective Google-delivered remedy: wrap it overnight in a wet tea bag. Lo and behold, it worked! The tannic acid in the teabag apparently has properties that have been known for years to remove dead skin cells (It’s also good for shrinking hemorrhoids!).
Good for What Ails Me?
And now, a confession: I use Google to research a wide variety of medical conditions my brain makes up stories about while trying to convince me they are all lethal and preordained to kill me. Most recently: sciatica, sinus infections, peripheral neuropathy, folliculitis and hives. Turns out that even though a statistically wimpy number of people have actually died by complications from all of these conditions, I’m unlikely to. So, I’ve probably got probability on my side. I’ve also got culture, since I’m joined by more than 84 million other Americans who use any of the hundreds of search engines and meta-search engines currently available online to do research and spare us from dizzying trips down the rabbit-hole that is Corporate Medical America.
However, there’s a certain kind of anxious urgency I notice about these kinds of remedy searches. What I mostly want them to do, and what they generally do accomplish is … they calm me down. There’s something about being able to name a condition – say idiopathic urticaria (hives) – and get the sense that it’s not going to be the seminal event that begins my end-of-life trajectory – that brings reassurance. I can relax and actually enjoy the scratching and the temporary relief it brings.
There are other problems in using the internet to self-diagnose of course. One is: there are many more listings in search engines for serious and weird diseases than there are for things like hives and the common cold. Search long enough and I’ll eventually find sufficient link-bait to convince me that the itchy welts on my skin are the way my personal, unique strain of brain cancer just happens to be presenting! Not all that good for calming what in reality actually ails me. I too often find myself with the overwhelming impulse to research any and all symptoms of other related conditions and induce in myself a state of medical-induced anxiety – cyberchondria!
Another problem: I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s called … ignorance. Or my new favorite word for it: nescience. One way to overcome nescience is to become informed, but probably not by relying solely on search engines. In the old days, a better way to dispel nescience with respect to what ails us might be to actually consult with a doctor. The only challenge with that is these days doctors are super meta-busy doctoring. If you’re a neurologist, for example, with a full 60-80 hour a week practice, you don’t have time to stay even a little bit current with the 300,000 peer-reviewed neuroscience studies published every year! Who does? No one.
What to do? Here’s one suggestion – form a doctor-patient-advocate armada relationship. No one will be more motivated than you and your circle of friend”ships” and caring community members. Ideally there’s an Admiral who can be the WICOS (Who’s In Charge of the Ship?), directing every aspect involved in research and treatment. There are boatswains to do the actual scouring of the current literature; a sailor who’s “A-J Squared Away” to review it and curate it; a Chief Petty Officer to summarize the most relevant studies; a deck hand to arrange for effective treatment, medicines and non-medical needs; a Bridge Commander to schedule all the various appointments and followup needs…