We all share a constant companion these days, our friend Google. Life has changed remarkably over the past twenty years, often for the better, as the internet has allowed access to endless information in seconds. However, we have also come to see shortcomings in our experience of the internet, perhaps a lack of face-to face conversation, or an inability to tolerate quiet moments of reflection without pulling out the phone. And let’s not even get started on the topic of kids and screen time!
In our practice, and in the wider medical field, one notable downside to the ever-present ability to search for information is a remarkable increase in health-related anxiety. Psychologists have coined a term for this phenomenon, cyberchondria, which is defined as a vicious cycle of increased physical health concerns and online medical information. A worry about a symptom leads to a Google search, which unearths dreadful diseases not previously imagined, which causes a cascade of anxiety and more searches.
We are all aware that online information can be inaccurate and that we should go to the most reliable sites. In pediatrics that might be the American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org or www.healthychildren.org) or the Center for Disease Control vaccine advisory committee (cdc.gov/vaccines/acip/about.html). The insidious issue with medical searches is the likelihood of coming up with exceedingly rare, ominous diseases when searching symptoms caused by innocent self-limited illnesses.
In medicine, there is an expression, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” Ordinary conditions are common, and rare ones may not be seen even once in a long pediatric career. Both may pop up side-by-side in a web search but don’t deserve equal weight.
At North Suburban Pediatrics we have strong relationships with families and ample opportunity for follow-up, allowing for stepwise evaluation of health concerns. We don’t have to look for that zebra right away. First comes a phone call. Are there red flags warranting an immediate trip to the ER? Is an office visit in order? As we evaluate, we typically test for the more common explanations for a symptom first. If the history, exam, and test results don’t result in a diagnosis and symptoms haven’t resolved, we cast our net a little wider. This is when consideration of less common diagnoses becomes appropriate. Before internet search anxiety, only those with the most exceptional situations had to contemplate the most serious diagnosis.
Physicians are teachers, and we love to share what we know. We consider your children our children too, and share your concern for their well-being. The more we talk, the better we get to know each other. Knowing your concerns and your family history helps us tailor care to your needs — let’s see if Siri can do that. So please call us. A dialogue in the daytime is much more reassuring than late night web-surfing when the kids are finally in bed. We want to raise children to be strong and resilient, to have confidence in all aspects of themselves, including their health. Our anxiety affects our families. Let’s work together to keep it in its place. Just call, and leave the worrying to us.
Written by Dr. Eileen Beaty