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When to Self-treat, When to See a Doctor

Humans are funny creatures. In our cultural experience, and perhaps in your own, we know the type of the hypochondriac—always complaining or fearful of this or that malady, needing to medicate or to run to the doctor despite anyone else’s ability to see either actual illness or any benefit from treatment. We may even observe or believe that such a person is “enabled” by the medical establishment, or by a particular gullible or unscrupulous practitioner. Then there are those who brag about “never having been to a doctor”, as if their good luck (and possibly, healthy habits, and possibly, anxiety) evidenced both some kind of virtue and its reward.

There are very real reasons, both philosophical and practical, to be neither too dependent on nor too dismissive of modern medicine. Medicine can save lives. Some of us can attest to this from our personal experience, and most of us probably know people who believe that to be true in their particular case.

Potential Pitfalls

On the other hand, medicine has made major missteps in the twentieth century (and doubtless on into the present), and its practice is imperfect:

  • Doctors are human, differ in experience and knowledge, and are capable of mistakes in judgment along with other personal foibles. (Of course, all that applies to the would-be self-treater as well.)
  • Medical research, useful as its results may be, does have the vast majority of its agenda set by profit-seeking drug companies.
  • Institutional medicine, along with other industries misapplying medical knowledge, has contaminated both its own hospitals and our environment with antibiotics, and created drug-resistant bacteria that would have had no impetus to evolve had nature been left to its own devices.

Against these valid reasons for doubts, it is easy to see the appeal of the “alternative” treatments so relentlessly touted on the web. People like certainty. The web, with its blithe assurances that this, that or the other “natural”, “holistic” wonder treatment—or simple folk remedy “suppressed” by the medical establishment—will cure what ails you, has all the seductive charm of the spurious snake oil sold by traveling medicine shows of old.

Knowledge Is Power—Perhaps Even the Power to Heal

So is there sane and safe advice on the web about self-treatment? Indeed there is. For general health concerns, one of the sites we like best is FamilyDoctor.org. Check out their guide to coughing as an example of the kind of thing to look out for:

  • Symptom-based search. If you’re going to self-treat, or home-treat your family, you need to start like the best doctors from an attitude of humility. Start with symptoms—what the body is actually doing or failing to do—rather than a diagnosis, which can act like blinders to interfere with good observation. Your personal or family history may or may not be reflected in your own or your family’s current medical problems.
  • Specificity. We recognize a cough. Do we know what risks we run or treatment we need based on how long it has lasted? On how much and what color and texture of sputum (if any) we cough up? On whether the cough correlates with shortness of breath? With fever, chills, or chest pain? With a history of heart trouble or recent exposure to lung irritants? With weight loss or swelling of the legs?
  • Range of treatments. Notice how the cough page covers a range of treatment options from the emergency room, to seeing the doctor soon, to seeing the doctor sometime, to self-care, to a combination of self-care and (contingent) medical consultations. Links to expanded self-care options are provided for the two conditions most amenable to it: cold and flu.

Contrast this with a site that consistently comes up high in Google’s non-paid results for a search on “self-care self-treatment”, which:

  • Gives only a selective, eccentrically unbalanced list of conditions, not symptoms
  • Describes the conditions it does list in the most general terms
  • Recommends specific remedies by brand name, and links to mail-order sites.

All of these are pretty good indications that you are being shilled—and potentially putting yourself or those you love and mean the best for at risk. (Yes, FamilyDoctor.org does carry ads. These are clearly labeled as such, and presumably conform to their published policy on advertising.)

Although it might seem incidental, you are also (in general) looking for sites with dated entries, and/or with a clean, “modern” web look and feel that is easy to navigate. Why? Because medical research is constantly updating what we know—one of the reasons its results can be contradictory and confusing—and you want a site that’s kept current, not one that some crank or huckster cobbled together using HTML for Dummies in 1997.

In choosing to live off the grid, you have chosen to think for yourself and not follow the conventional wisdom. Don’t be seduced by the statistical popularity of search engine results. Sometimes “the wisdom of the crowd” looks more like a compound of willful ignorance and wishful thinking.

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