Claire Eden worried increasingly about the sores in her husband’s mouth. She thought he might have oral cancer or something equally serious and repeatedly told him to visit the doctor, but he wouldn’t go.
So Eden took her husband’s health into her own hands.
“I just started Googling ‘mouth sores’ and something caught my eye about cinnamon gum,” the Buckhead resident says. “I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ because he had recently been chewing a lot of cinnamon gum.
She perused tales of those who reacted poorly to the product. Some developed sores on the walls of their mouth, their lips, their tongue. Even swelling. The descriptions of their maladies matched her husband’s problem.
He switched to Wrigley’s Spearmint and his sores disappeared almost immediately.
Eden figures she saved herself a chunk of change by going online to diagnose her husband. “At least a co-pay,” she says, and maybe hundreds more had a doctor run expensive tests.
This is the allure of so much medical information bobbing at one’s fingertips: hospital, government and nonprofit websites, blogs, news stories, Facebook, Twitter. The potential to self-diagnose — and save a few bucks — is greater than ever.
That also means the ability to misdiagnose is greater than ever.
For the patient and the doctor, arriving at an accurate diagnosis can be like a game of “guess who?” says Dr. Erica Brownfield. But patients are less likely to know the right questions to ask.
“It’s hard when you don’t have the medical training and background to figure out, ‘How do I fit the pieces of the puzzle together?’ to come up with the correct diagnosis,” says the Emory general internist. She suggests patients pinching their pennies try calling their doctor first. If symptoms are minor, the physician might advise waiting it out or recommend home remedies.
Doctors, however, also have witnessed a wave of patients who research, self-diagnose and worry themselves into believing they have a more serious condition than they actually do.
Mableton resident Leigh Anne Rehkopf was between jobs and couldn’t afford to see a doctor, much less purchase expensive drugs or treatments, if needed.
“I woke up one morning with the most incredible headache at the base of my skull,” Rehkopf says. “I was like, ‘I have meningitis’ — not that I would have any idea what that’s like.” Then Rehkopf agonized when research on WebMD.com confirmed her symptoms were consistent with meningitis. At the doctor’s office, she was diagnosed with a sinus infection.
“Turns out you have sinus glands at the base of your skull,” Rehkopf says. She didn’t even have to pay for the antibiotics to treat it — some grocery chains’ pharmacies provide common medicines for free or cheap when you have a prescription.
But Rehkopf’s experience hasn’t deterred her from visiting medical websites. “I still don’t go to the doctor because I don’t make enough money to pay the co-pay,” she says.
Despite the occasional misdiagnosis online, Dr. Jacob Varghese says he supports dollar-watchers doing some of their own research first, especially as medical websites’ information has improved over the years. Varghese, who practices at North Fulton Primary Care in Alpharetta, recalls a patient using online research to diagnose her own plantar fasciitis — inflammation of the sole — before she ever stepped foot in his office.
“It’s great as an initial start, or even as a follow-up after you’ve already talked with your doctor,” Varghese says. But, he adds, it shouldn’t replace the relationship with your physician.
Emory’s Brownfield also likes her patients having access to accurate information. “It empowers patients, and it lets them be proactive about their health.”
But she, too, prescribes common sense. “At any point if you have any question about what you have or if a condition persists, you should go into the doctor.”
A doctor’s view
Tips from Emory’s Dr. Erica Brownfield when using medical websites:
Reputable health websites
Some recommended sites:
MayoClinic.com: Look up diseases, check symptoms, learn about drugs and test procedures.
ClevelandClinic.org: Learn about symptoms, healthy living (can download mobile app).
WebMD.com: Includes symptom lookup, articles on seasonal illnesses or conditions.
MedlinePlus.gov: Part of U.S. National Library of Medicine — National Institutes of Health, includes interactive video tutorials to evaluate symptoms.
AHRQ.gov: Information from U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality on choosing quality health care, understanding diseases, comparing treatments.
Have you ever correctly or incorrectly diagnosed yourself to save money? What was the outcome?
– By Lauren Davidson, Atlanta Bargain Hunter