Google makes me sick

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Want to turn your cough into lung cancer? Look up your symptoms online, says Poorva Rajaram

Illustration: Samia Singh

ABOUT 120 years ago, Jerome K Jerome traced the interior confessions of a hypochondriac with startling accuracy. “I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I’m suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems to correspond with all the sensations that I have ever felt.”

All we need to do today is update ‘patent medicine advertisement’ to Google and we have a new culprit. Google hypochondriacs, it seems, are everywhere. Hypochondria itself has the unique gift of adding a lively texture to the most banal smoker’s cough: poly – syllabic words (like bronchial anthracofibrosis), then exotic quirks and then, of course, imminent death. Google’s culpability in the matter is fairly straightforward: Google a disease, skip past the jargon-filled Wikipedia page and hone in on a conveniently watered-down website like WebMD or Medicalnewstoday to amplify your medical insecurities.

Before you know it, you will be soothed and stroked — one large-font bullet point symptom at a time — into believing anything. In a string of hyperlinks, the severity of your disease is bound to graduate from a cough, to a lung infection, if not cancer. For the voracious Googler, there is even a vicarious suffering on offer. Anything from videos of survivors who battled the odds to the final notes of the terminally ill.

Further poking around will lead you to one of Facebook’s quirkiest features: you can ‘like’ cancer. Forty-one people have liked its Wikipedia page imported into Facebook. One wonders if the Google hypochondriac’s ideal web pastime is affectionately clicking ‘like’ on the pages of her most beloved diseases.

‘One of my patients Googled gall bladder removal and decided the procedure would give her diarrhoea,’ says Dr Vinay Kumar

Dr P Vinay Kumar, surgical gastroenterologist at Apollo Hospital, Hyderabad, complains, “Half-knowledge is a dangerous thing. We doctors spend up to 10 years gaining specialisation and people want the same thing in a few minutes.” He narrates an infuriating incident: “For people who get recurrent gall bladder infections, I recommend a laparoscopic removal because it is a vestigial organ. One of my patients Googled the procedure and decided it’d give her diarrhoea. She kept insisting on postponing the surgery. Finally, she was convinced and now she is happy with her decision.” He insists that his patients’ online research doesn’t save him the time and effort of explaining the medical phenomena to them. Dr Kumar says not everyone uses the Internet’s medical advice, but he identifies IT professionals and their children as particularly prone to health Googling.

Many doctors are more than a little unhappy with a growing trend of self-diagnosis that steals away their expert hats. An inexplicably proud cyber medical fiend, a history student in Delhi, says web research only adds to her self-knowledge. “I learn about the physical processes of my body and bypass doctors. In India, you don’t even need a prescription.” For her, the Internet is a veritable doctor’s waiting room that provides fellow-sufferers.

Google is now churning the pecking order of doctor-patient relationships while serving as loyal companion to the fancifully ill. It could easily become our literal interpreter of maladies.

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