By Tennille Tracy
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.
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.
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.”
Photo: WebMD CEO Martin Wygod