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Despite being the internet’s premier medical encyclopedia of accumulated knowledge and a portal for virtual diagnoses, WebMD often serves as a major scourge to your MD’s profession, complicating the already byzantine world of medicine. Right now, their symptom-checking model claims I have no less than 42 possible ailments, diseases, and illnesses. A majority of them being life-threatening.

With that in mind, I ended up picking the brains of several doctors and medical professionals to fish out all the nasty negatives of WebMD—and honestly, I’m feeling better already.

The Experts

• My partner, a practicing Physician Assistant in NYC (as well as some of her PA/doctor friends who chose to remain anonymous).

• Dr. Adam Kaplan, an MD/PhD in Neuroscience, specializing in Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who helped start his own health-centric site, Mood247.com.

• Dr. Jared Rich, a practicing physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

While all these pros noted there was some definite upside to having a resource like WebMD out there, the following frustrations tended to make their jobs a little more difficult:

It creates an anxious and stubborn patient

“As an Emergency Doctor, when I meet a new patient it is immediately clear if they have been googling—that’s fine, the problem arises when people then think they know what’s happening, and what is needed for them,” Dr. Rich said.

One PA from a major NYC hospital said that not only do patients get stubborn about what they read online, and what they think their diagnosis should be, but that WebMD perpetuates a whole lot of anxiety for patients. “If someone says they’ve been looking up their symptoms online, I stop them right there: they probably think they have cancer and will die soon, because that’s where those online wormholes always lead.”

“Yes, a headache is technically a symptom of, let’s say a hundred different ailments, but chances are you don’t have any of them.”

Prognosis: WebMD has a propensity for getting people worked up and overly-anxious, by always displaying the worst possible scenarios for every symptom.

It makes people believe they are really sick

The human mind is an incredibly powerful tool—capable of influencing the body so much, that it can even convince itself that it’s feeling something it’s not. “It’s somatizing—when a patient is so anxious, they start to actually feel the symptoms they read about. So, patients can actually make themselves sick,” said my PA girlfriend.

“People are very suggestible, patients read about various ailments, they sort of hypnotize themselves into believing they have these conditions,” remarked Dr. Kaplan. This is a sentiment Dr. Rich corroborated, “People want to believe that they are feeling bad for a reason, and more importantly, a reason that can be fixed.”

Prognosis: You can actually think yourself into feeling sick. Thanks WebMD.

It can lead to unnecessary testing

“Often times the patient doing research online is very wrong in their assumptions, and the treatments that they have chosen for themselves are unnecessary, costly, and often dangerous.” Dr. Rich said, a fact that the table of PAs and doctors confirmed.

“You can’t really doubt a patient’s symptoms,” one PA who worked for a General Practitioner told me. “Often times, the only way to soothe a patient, is to test him or her on what they think they might have, and that involves a lot of expensive, often unnecessary tests—ultrasounds, x-rays, etc. Doctors, in general, strive to cut back on unnecessary testing, and this is very counterintuitive to that.”

Dr. Kaplan said, “I’d much rather have a patient come in as a blank slate, without diagnosis for their problems. I want them to give me symptoms, so I can make the diagnosis.”

Prognosis: Patients use WebMD to chose their own (often excessive) treatments and tests, and when they claim they have symptoms, doctors have no choice but to play it safe and believe them.

It can lead people to underestimate their problems

On the flip side, non-medical professionals using WebMD can run into trouble, by gettingunder-diagnosed by the site. “On its symptom checker, WebMD doesn’t factor in family history, medicines you might be taking, and other risks that are very important to a diagnosis, it’s missing a big piece of the puzzle,” my girlfriend illuminated me.

“It’s a great triage tool, and is an awesome source for basic medical info, especially for laypeople, I’ve seen people avoid going to the doctor longer than they should, because online sources made them think they were okay, or they weren’t getting the full picture.”

Prognosis: WebMD casts a wide net, and can’t effectively factor in family history, medication, and circumstances unique to a single patient.

It’s not a substitute for professionals

“The word doctor originates from the latin word docēre, which means teacher. A doctor is supposed to be a teacher, and that’s one thing that has been taken out of the system,” Dr. Kaplan said.

“The interaction between doctor and patient is complex. It is the same interaction that occurs with any kind of expert and lay person. It’s like trying to explain to your grandmother how iCloud works. She will never quite understand the intricacies as well as you do, and no matter how well you explain them, she just might never get it,” this analogy, brought forth by Dr. Rich, was echoed by many of the professionals I spoke with.

Instead of researching online for hours, the absolute best thing is to come in and see a professionals with years and years of medical training—who literally get paid to do this, every day,” one resident at a prominent NYC hospital told me.

Prognosis: “WebMD does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.” Straight from their own proverbial mouth.

It’s often used incorrectly

When talking to these professionals, it seemed like the most frustrating part of WebMD, was the fact that it really COULD be a very viable medical tool for the untrained layperson, but (like in the examples listed above) it’s hardly, if ever, used correctly.

WebMD is a resource, that, combined with a doctor’s expertise, can be a valuable tool,” Dr. Kaplan said. “Being educated on medical fact isn’t the problem, every doctor should be handing out information to his patients, keeping them informed. It’s how it’s being used. There are patients that frankly need resources online, and I’d much rather them use WebMD than a message board, that’s where it becomes a nightmare. You’re very fortunate your girlfriend is a PA and can talk to you about issues—not everyone has that.”

Dr. Rich agrees, “The bottom line is, it is not WebMD’s fault that people make incorrect conclusions. It is information just like any information that we have access to in this modern world. It is how we use that information that matters.”

Prognosis: WebMD, in itself, is actually very useful. People are just using it incorrectly. But you, having read this entire article, already know that, of course.

 

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