Entangled in web health

Wellness and the web … Researching illness on the internet can be a double-edged sword.My son was 18 months old when he was diagnosed with meningitis. He had a high fever, was listless and vomiting, and, crucially, had a rash on his belly. A rash that stayed resolutely scarlet when I pressed it.
Nanjing Night Net

It wasn’t a medical professional that diagnosed my son. It was me, an ordinary mum with no medical training but 24-hour access to health-related advice, courtesy of the internet.

My self-diagnosis resulted in a panic-stricken dash to Emergency, where we endured a six-hour wait before being sent home. It turns out my son didn’t have meningitis, just an unspecified virus that cleared up in a few days.

I was both relieved and ashamed. I was right to worry, but instead of contacting the doctor I’d allowed the internet to tell me what I didn’t know.

Cyberchondria is the term used to describe the state of escalating concern caused by researching medical matters on the web. If my kids contract anything unusual – beyond the common winter sniffles – I’ve been known to spend hours online, terrifying myself with the possibility it might be a horrible affliction.

It sounds ridiculous, particularly when a visit to the doctor or after-hours clinic is easy to come by in the middle of Sydney, but self-diagnosing via the internet is incredibly common.

A study conducted by Bupa Health showed that nearly 80% of Australians admitted to going online for health information. Almost half of those (47%) look for information to make a self-diagnosis.

Parents’ appetite for web-based information may be fueled by the need for immediate answers. If we’re worried about our children’s health, even a day’s wait to see the doctor can be interminable. The ability to ‘diagnose’ our kids there and then is therefore too tempting for many of us.

Rachel Holden, a mum from Bondi, first got concerned when she noticed her young son, Edward, was experiencing facial seizures. She says, “I researched his symptoms online, which lead me to believe he had something serious, such as Tourette’s or autism. I looked at the internet pretty much every day, changing the wording in my searches to come up with something positive.”

Rachel eventually saw her doctor, but he dismissed her concerns as the irrational fears of a first-time mum. Despite his assurances that Edward was fine, Rachel’s online analysis convinced her something awful was causing his seizures. She finally got a referral to a pediatrician. He also told Rachel her son was absolutely fine and that he’d grow out of his condition. And the doctors were right: he did.

Rachel found the experience exhausting and emotionally draining. “The worst part was that as a first-time parent I had no benchmark, and I hoped the internet would give me one. Instead I went down a helter-skelter spiral the moment I typed the symptoms into a search engine.”

The doctor’s viewpoint  Dr Mike Torry, a GP with pediatric experience, sees many parents who research their children’s health online. Although he believes self-diagnosis can cause unwarranted anxiety, he doesn’t feel it’s always a bad thing.

“Some people use the internet to find out more about their child’s symptoms prior to an appointment. It can make for informed parents who are able to have an engaged discussion regarding their child,” he says.

Dr Torry also believes that access to information via the web can prompt parents to act more quickly, explaining, “As a population we’re becoming increasingly aware about our families’ health. The internet facilitates that interest and can encourage parents to seek help sooner than they might have done 15 or 20 years ago.”

Still, he points out that the negative consequences of web-based research are concerning. “It’s understandable that parents want immediate answers but paranoia fueled by the web can lead to an almost constant state of hyper-vigilance and awareness,” he says.

This level of constant concern is worrying – it not only causes parental stress, but can have a knock-on effect for the whole family. The unrelenting scrutiny for signs of illness, combined with numerous health-related conversations, might lead children to have unrealistic perceptions around illness and disease. As Dr Torry explains, “Frequent analysis of children’s wellbeing has the ability to impact their self-confidence, create anxiety and hinder their move towards independence.”

And the stress and paranoia caused by inaccurate self-diagnosis has a flip side that’s equally as troubling. Dr Torry is concerned that parents may look online and be assured symptoms are the sign of something minor when there could actually be a serious problem.

“It could be very easy to find information that suggests everything is okay even though the child needs urgent medical attention,” he says.

If you’re concerned about your child’s wellbeing, the best idea is to book an appointment with your GP or local childhood health practitioner as soon as you can. And if you’re tempted to consult the internet in the meantime, Dr Torry makes the following recommendations:This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.