Doctors say they know best: Lay off the WebMD
Dr. Peter Gottesfeld has seen it so many times. An anxious patient suffering from aching muscles, throbbing joints, headaches and fatigue rushes into his office with a diagnosis in hand: Lyme disease. How does the patient know? A medical Web site said so.
“We can drive ourselves crazy sometimes,” said Gottesfeld, a family doctor with a private practice in Westchester County, just north of New York City.
Indeed. Patients can also drive their doctors a little wacky, too. Gottesfeld said that about 99 percent of the time his patients were free of Lyme disease, which is transmitted through tick bites and can lead to problems with the heart and nervous system. Most, he said, merely had the flu or were exhausted. But still, about once a day, one of his patients will declare themselves a likely victim of Lyme disease, after having used the Internet to draw that conclusion.
That, says Gottesfeld and other doctors, is the double-edged sword of medical Web sites, which are attracting more and more readers around the country.
While sites like WebMD.com and MDAdvice.com can be great for people seeking research on an illness a doctor has already diagnosed, the sites are not always the best place to go for people seeking information on the cause of their coughs, aches, bumps and rashes. The sites, doctors say, are not precise and often create frustration, unnecessary worry and even paranoia.
Dr. Daniel Broughton, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said there had been several occasions when parents had entered his office certain that their child, who doesn’t pay attention in class or ignores instructions, was suffering from attention deficit disorder based on a medical Web site’s diagnosis. In many of those cases, he said, the child was no different from any other bouncy, energetic or restless youngster. “They just need to mature more,” he said.
The situation has gotten so bad at times that Broughton has warned a few of his patients to stay away from medical Web sites, especially when he’s still evaluating their condition and has not determined a diagnosis.
Using the “symptom checker” on WebMD, for example, a 32-year-old female suffering from a sore throat could get the impression she has any one of 20 conditions, some of them rather severe. By indicating she has swollen glands and feels pain and discomfort in her throat, WebMD suggests she might have scarlet fever, tuberculosis or even thyroid cancer. WebMD also says she might just have allergies or strained muscles, but there’s no indication that one condition is any more likely than the other.
Using MDAdvice.com, the same woman would be told she could have strep throat, hay fever or mumps.
“Information is a double-edged sword,” Gottesfeld said. “There are all kinds of things that can spark anxiety. This is just one more.”
By trying to make their own diagnoses using medical Web sites, patients are driving themselves crazy and quite unnecessarily so, many doctors say. This behavior is most damaging when it prevents people from seeking treatment.
Dr. David Amler, a pediatrician in White Plains, N.Y., said that a few years ago several medical Web sites reported that certain types of vaccinations, including those for measles, mumps and rubella, had mercury in them and could cause autism. After reading such information, patients across the country refused to get the vaccination for themselves or their children, although most researchers believe autism is a genetic condition.
“They over-read everything,” Amler said. “It immobilizes them to some degree.”
WebMD officials insist their Web site, which attracts 35 million readers each month, is good medicine, as long as visitors use it as a resource in conjunction with professional care. The Web site’s information is not the final word on anyone’s condition, they say.
“Throughout the site, we try to make it clear that we’re not a substitute for your health care provider,” said Dr. Steven Zatz, executive vice president for professional services at WebMD. “The site is designed to try to help patients and caregivers understand health issues.”
MDAdvice.com did not respond to requests for comment.
Many doctors agree that sites like WebMD can be beneficial when used as a research tool. Accurate information on a particular disease can help create a more well-informed patient capable of asking specific questions aimed at easing any medical concerns.
The problem is that too many people don’t use the sites as a simple research tool. They use the sites to determine what ails them. That, many doctors say, creates unnecessary anxiety until a patient sees a doctor.
“I think it is threatening for people to have this access,” Amler said. “They pick the worst diagnosis for everything.”