By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
Have you discovered WebMD Answers yet? If not, you need to visit this newest feature. Anyone can submit questions that may be addressed by a cadre of health professionals. As a matter of fact, any individual can post a response if they know the answer. I have been participating in WebMD Answers since its launch about two months ago and I am enthralled, and a bit hooked. Why? Because most of those questions mirror the ones I get in my clinical practice and I enjoy answering them.
Why do people ask medical questions online in the first place? First, the questions can be asked anonymously. You will not risk having a medical provider reacting in some inappropriate way, like rolling their eyes or frowning, or running screaming from the exam room (not that a true professional would ever do that). You can ask virtually anything and get a non-judgmental response. Second, some medical providers may not be receptive to questions, especially those questions that may be on the bizarre or embarrassing side or those that do not reflect the theme of the medical visit. If you can’t ask your medical provider embarrassing questions in confidence, then who can you ask?
Based on the writing style, I suspect that many of the questions are posted by teenagers and young adults. Unfortunately, many are expecting an immediate response, like the text messages that they get from their friends. Relatively fast responses can come if one of the health professionals is online when the question is asked, but this is not always the case.
Some people will post extremely complex questions; certainly not ones that I could easily answer. As a primary care clinician, I often encounter questions involving medical sub-specialties that are just beyond my scope of knowledge or experience. I leave those questions to the specialists to address, or I may address them from a primary care perspective.
Posted questions can be divided into two general types: the unanswerable ones, and the answerable ones:
The unanswerable questions typically do not have enough information, or the question is just too vague. For instance: “What is this lump on my head?” – posted without any further information. Some of the more unusual questions tend to be unanswerable, but you feel bad not answering them, since it may have been a serious question.
The answerable questions fall into nearly every field of medicine and even veterinary medicine. High on the list of questions are gynecological queries, usually involving the menstrual cycle: heavy periods, no periods, cramps, spotting, or concern about a possible pregnancy. Along this same line are sexual questions posted by both male and females. They involve questions regarding sexual response (or lack of) and STDs. Sexual questions are often difficult to address face-to-face with your medical provider, so online postings seem to be more comfortable.
Also popular are dermatological (skin) questions. Unfortunately, skin diagnoses are highly visual and require an extensive medical history. It is next to impossible to get a grasp on skin issues through a brief online posting. The skin has a limited response to disease, and a rash is just about it. As you can imagine, the sheer number of possibilities make it impossible to narrow them down, let alone provide recommendations for treating “it”. Because of this, many of the dermatological questions are unanswerable.
Drugs and medications are commonly posted questions, from drug interactions to the use (abuse) of illicit drugs. There are inquiries about side effects and dosages, or how long a particular drug might stay in your system (often posted by those with an impending drug screen). As you might imagine, questions concerning vaccines and vaccine safety are other popular inquires. Although not classified as drugs, natural remedies like herbs, vitamins, and other supplements generate many questions.
There are a surprising number of questions that are orthopedic in nature, from recent fractures to chronic back or neck pain. Headaches are high on the list.
You will never know the answer unless a question is asked. While WebMD health experts and others may post responses to questions that are answerable, many more may go unanswered for a variety of reasons. Life can be a series of mysteries and some questions just do not have logical answers, but we try.