An Open Letter to WebMD

An Open Letter to WebMD

Stop inflaming my hypochondriac tendencies

Dear WebMD: Please stop making me feel like I'm dying.

I know. I get it. Panic sells, and you're not technically in the business of helping people and making them feel better. You're there to sell ad space, and to make sure you get repeat visits to your site--and thus cultivate prime web real estate for advertising--you've got to keep people hooked. Sometimes a great way to keep people hooked is to convince them they're dying of one thing or another. 

To be fair, WebMD does gather most of its repeat viewers due to its eye-catching packaging of medical science. They have lots of slideshows with pretty stock photos about how you can avoid dying so quickly (eat watermelon, have a pet, and don't be so stressed out, whatever you do). But it's the symptom checker that gets my hypochondriac juices flowing every time. I'm not sure if it's intentionally broad or vague in its diagnoses, but apparently every symptom I've ever had could be the sign of some seriously life-threatening condition. It might also be, you know, nothing, but there's no way of knowing when the symptom checker lists its guesses. 

Let's say you get mystery abdominal pains every now and again. The WebMD symptom checker will ask you what kind of pain (dull, sharp, throbbing, etc.) and then the severity of that pain on a "mild, moderate, severe" kind of scale. If you want, you can tell it to "ask you more" and get down to the nitty-gritty surrounding your mystery hurt, but even when you progress all of the way through the questionnaire, it's not like symptom checker will have narrowed it down. A moderate lower abdominal pain could belie anything from constipation to a panic attack to a parasitic infestation to a bladder stone. I don't know about you, WebMD, but I think I would know if my symptoms were related to a panic attack due to my having all the other signs of a panic attack. They're not exactly sneaky things, creeping in and making my tummy hurt and then leaving. Ditto on the constipation; it usually presents itself in other ways. Oh well. It's probably cervicitis. Also: did you know that "foul smelling stools" is a symptom listed on the symptom checker? Poop that smells bad could be an indicator of celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or cystic fibrosis. Holy crap. If your feces doesn't give off the odor of cut grass and roses, you're probably already well on your way to the grave.

I understand the reasoning behind symptom checker's design, but in practice, parts of it just seem absurd ("choking on food" is a symptom associated with the conditions "eating too quickly" and "not chewing food well". The more you know!). The vagueness of the pseudo-diagnosis ought to lead you to click on full articles for many conditions, thus registering more ad hits for the domain. (Right now all my ads are the tactless "Is It Depression??" graphic.) I've stopped self-diagnosing with WebMD just because of all the times it's convinced me I had a serious condition that was going to kill me. It's important to keep in mind that the internet's not a doctor and commercial health info websites aren't always there to reassure you. Go for the slideshows and factoids and healthy eating guides, but stay away from the robot doctors.