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The Age Of Cyberchondriacs: Can The Internet Replace Doctors?

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By Rhea Kumar:

Wikipedia defines a hypochondriac as someone `who is excessively preoccupied or worried about having a serious illness and who becomes unduly alarmed about any physical symptoms that is detected, no matter how minor the symptom may be’. But information technology and the internet age have spawned an entire new species of hypochondriacs: the cyberchondriacs.

CyberchondriacsWhat is the first thing cyberchondriacs do when they feel even slightly ill? Go to the doctor? Pull out some medicine? No! They rush to the computer, connect to the internet and Google their symptoms. An entire range of websites open up, offering possible diagnosis based on symptoms, suggested lines of treatment, shared experiences of other patients and much more : all for free. Various websites like Mayo Clinic and WebMD have become viable alternatives to doctors for the paranoid cyberchondriac. And really, who would want to sit for hours in waiting rooms and pay a fat fee for a fragile sheet of paper describing the causes and cures when the same information can be found instantly on the net for free?

In the fast paced lifestyle most of us have adopted today, these healthcare websites offer the twin benefits of affordability and accessibility. Unfortunately, reliability isn’t that easy to get on the internet. Type in headache on your search engine, and a range of possible causes open up, from something as innocent as a sinus infection or eye strain to something as serious as dengue, malaria or even brain tumour! Even the most ordinary and routine symptoms when researched extensively on the internet will lead to a frightening prognosis. The problem is that many conditions can present very similar symptoms and a hasty conclusion can be very misleading and sometimes dangerous. And this is where the over-active imagination of our cyberchondriacs takes over. A stomach-ache implies jaundice or typhoid, body rash implies chickenpox and a backache will mean malfunctioning kidneys. And in a matter of minutes, the patient is convinced that he or she has contracted the most serious illness possible as deeply ingrained paranoia eclipses logical thinking and analysis.

In most cases where people are sensible enough to visit a doctor after looking up their symptoms on the internet, they will have their worst fears shot down. A good doctor will prevent many of these cyberchondriacs from taking unnecessary or harmful drugs on the basis of a few obscure lines from a healthcare website. But those who are ambitious or foolish enough to take medicines or treatments they got off the net, without consulting a doctor, can get into a serious problem. To exemplify this point, researchers in the UK used keywords in Google to search advice for five common paediatric symptoms and evaluated the first 100 websites. It was found that 39% of websites gave accurate information (consistent with current UK recommendations), 11% provided inaccurate information and 49% did not provide pertinent advice. All government sites were accurate while news sites were accurate only 55% of the time. The internet doesn’t seem that great a substitute to a doctor after all.

This is not to say that healthcare websites are completely useless and must be shunned in totality. Post a confirmed diagnosis by a medical practitioner, these sites can be used for obtaining supplemental information on the disease and also check the effectiveness of the treatment being adopted. Often doctors will be too busy or detached to answer all the questions that a patient may have and this may leave the patient with a lingering sense of anxiety and confusion about his own condition. Additional information from the internet can help a person in focused questioning and meaningful interaction with their doctor.

Besides this, the internet helps people from diverse backgrounds connect on the basis of a common ailment and then share their experiences regarding symptoms, doctors, medicines, effectiveness of various treatments etc. This pool of information can become a significant resource for people and a great substitute for seeking alternative opinions from several doctors at a prohibitive cost. For life threatening diseases such as cancer, severe depression and other similar ailments that have a huge emotional and psychological impact on the patient, the internet is a great way to engage with patient communities and soliciting peer support. For example, `The Truth of It’ is a powerful series of films where 40 Canadians who suffered from cancer share their experiences and talk of how they battled the challenge. The series is available on YouTube and was hosted at Cancer View Canada, an online portal that connects cancer patients with caregivers and those who work in cancer control organizations across Canada. The films are emotionally inspiring and can help hundreds and thousands of patients who are struggling to cope with the disease and its devastating impact on the family. Often the mental outlook is critical in coping with such a disease, faith and a positive outlook can work wonders for a patient’s immunity and help him or her fight against the most severe odds. Similarly, in the case of rare diseases, the internet can help to build a powerful community support by establishing links with fellow sufferers from across the world, something that may otherwise be near impossible to do.

The internet is an infinite storehouse of medical information but the key lies in making judicious use of this information. Rather than paranoid cyberchondriacs, we must be smart netizens, exercise caution and tap the benefits of what can be a very valuable source of information on health and disease. It is extremely important to look at the source of information and how recently it has been updated. It is also helpful to check multiple websites for information on diseases to determine which ones are the most accurate and reliable; the first website that shows up on the search may not necessarily be the best. A website that appears informative and useful may actually be promoting a commercial enterprise engaged in the treatment or management of that disease: such websites cannot be expected to be impartial or completely accurate. Generally, government websites or those supported by respected medical affiliations are the best sources. Mayo Clinic, Web MD or Dr. Google may be reliable too, but they often give incorrect diagnosis. As for community forums and Yahoo answers, the further one stays from them, the better!

Without doubt, the Internet has fundamentally transformed the dynamics of the patient-doctor relationship by empowering hitherto passive patients with information and enabling them to play an increasingly active role in their own diagnosis and care. But as we all know, the internet is neither foolproof nor completely trustworthy. So for all you cyberchondriacs out there: the golden mantra is “the internet supplements real doctors; it does not supplant them”.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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