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'Am I Dying?!' A Raleigh Doctor's Answer To Internet Self-Diagnoses

Courtesy of Dr. Chris Kelly
After co-authoring "Am I Dying?!" cardiologist Dr. Chris Kelly recently moved to the Triangle.

When did you last look up your symptoms online? Medical tomes and doctors visits were once necessary for diagnosis; now the internet makes medical knowledge — both amateur and professional — available to the masses.

For marginalized patients without access to the costly medical system, message boards with home remedies can validate and diagnose symptoms doctors may have dismissed. But it is a struggle to trust or know what to do with the information we find. Muddled symptoms, inaccurate self-diagnoses and a constant anxiety over our own bodies complicates the work of 21st century doctors. Cardiologists Dr. Christopher Kelly and Dr. Marc Eisenberg noticed more and more of their patients arriving with anxiety from self-diagnoses. Dr. Kelly is a cardiologist at North Carolina Heart and Vascular and REX Hospital in Raleigh.

The pair penned “Am I Dying?! A Complete Guide To Your Symptoms And What To Do Next” (William Morrow/2018) to address their patients’ concerns in a way that takes symptoms seriously yet easily points readers towards one of three simple tiers of advice: 1. Take a chill pill, 2. Make a doctor’s appointment, 3. Get to the ER. Host Anita Rao talks with Dr. Kelly about whether the internet has democratized medicine or just sent us on a never-ending string of Google queries.


On health anxiety in the information age:

So people obviously have been having symptoms since the beginning of people — there's nothing new there. But what is new in recent years, is your ability to just put those symptoms into a search engine and get an avalanche of information about what they might be. In our personal experience as doctors — me and my co-author — was that a lot of people were getting information that was making their anxiety extremely high unnecessarily. Many people have had the experience where you plug something into the internet, and it tells you that your hangnail is actually cancer, and that you should get your affairs in order. And so we wanted to make a resource that was much more accurate, trustworthy, has no hidden agenda and provides very practical information about whether you need to get medical care or not. And that led to the book.

Our ability to collect data is far ahead of our ability to interpret and act on that data. - Dr. Kelly

On self-monitoring health data:

Unfortunately, I would say that our ability to collect data is far ahead of our ability to interpret and act on that data. People come to me with mountains of information — their chromosomes being sequenced by commercial companies, their heart rate for the past four years, as you say, from their Apple Watch pictures of their electrocardiogram. ... If you have a specific symptom, it's really helpful to have that information. If you have palpitations, and you have EKG — or electrocardiograms — from the time of your palpitation, that's extremely helpful. But if you have no symptoms, and you're an otherwise healthy person, it's harder to know how to act on that information.

On useful medical resources online:

So there are some very reputable sources online, if you don't want to get the book. The National Institute of Health has a lot of content online about a variety of symptoms and diseases. Top medical schools and academic medical centers, like the Mayo Clinic and Harvard have information up there, which is generally very reliable.

I would urge people to stay away from blogs, message boards, websites that are selling something, websites that are backed by a single person who isn't a mainstream physician, because you may get a lot of fringe recommendations there that may not help you and may even harm you. And there's tons of that out there as well. But if you stick to pretty mainstream sources, you can feel fairly confident the information is going to be good.

Grant Holub-Moorman coordinates events and North Carolina outreach for WUNC, including a monthly trivia night. He is a founding member of Embodied and a former producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.