Doctors reveal the worst cases of self-diagnosis they’ve ever seen

By Jonathan Ford Hughes, for MDLinx
Published May 23, 2019

Key Takeaways

It seems that the information age has made doctors of us all. Or perhaps more precisely, it’s made amateur doctors of us all.

Anyone with an internet connection is now a few taps or clicks away from a diagnosis of their own creation. The results of this phenomenon of 21st-century living have been hilarious, puzzling, and frightening. Increasingly, patients are showing up in doctors’ offices across America convinced that they have rare diseases, conditions that are anatomically impossible, or brain tumors. Yes, brain tumors.

“I had a patient who said he has brain tumor,” one physician told us. “When I asked how he got to know, he said the internet told him so when he Googled his symptoms. I was speechless.”

Recently, MDLinx asked readers to respond to a survey with “the most amusing/ridiculous/surprising incident in which a patient diagnosed her/himself.” A total of 162 doctors across all specialties responded. As you can imagine, the results—like the one mentioned above—were indeed amusing, ridiculous, and surprising.

What are they teaching in school?

Perhaps human anatomy and physiology is getting short shrift in American classrooms these days. One theme that cropped up in doctors’ responses was a lack of basic awareness about human biology.

For example, one Air Force physician told us about a patient with concerns about prostate cancer. Recently, a relative of the patient’s had just received a diagnosis of the disease, and the patient wanted to be proactive. The doctor was a bit perplexed.

“She (the patient) was wondering if she should get her prostate checked,” the doctor explained. “She was such a nice person. I think I was able to explain that she wasn't at risk without making her feel like she should have known she didn't have that gland. No question is too embarrassing or silly to ask a doc.”

What’s that smell?

Admittedly, you have to give patients credit for being attuned to their own bodies. After all, if they’re not paying attention to what their bodies are telling them, they could be ignoring serious health conditions.

This was the case with one woman, who reported to an emergency department, saying she had a vaginal infection. When the attending physician asked how she knew, the patient reported an unpleasant odor. The doctor who handled her case told us that he obtained a chaperone and performed all requisite tests, which revealed no pelvic pathology and no discharge.

“But indeed a stench filled the room,” the doctor said. “I looked down, and the source of the odor was actually her feet! Needless to say, I did not prescribe metronidazole, but a good, strong over-the-counter foot powder.”

The lazy traffic cop

A good metaphor can go a long way when explaining a complex medical condition to a patient—especially in pediatrics. But this one patient might just be the next Shakespeare. This 10-year-old gets bonus points for creativity in their interpretation of their ADHD diagnosis.

A pediatrician wrote to tell us about how one can explain ADHD to children.

“The traffic in their brains is information—sights, sounds, smells, conversation, everything around them,” the pediatrician described. “When the traffic cop in a person's brain is working, the cop keeps all the distracting, unhelpful information stopped and motions the important information in. A person with ADHD has a sleepy traffic cop, so that person gets a (stimulant) medicine that wakes up the traffic cop in her/his brain, and then the important information comes in and the unimportant information does not.”

The 10-year-old responded: “My traffic cop goes out for donuts around 3 in the afternoon."

What’s bugging you?

If it creeps or crawls, as a physician, you’ve likely dealt with it at one point or another. There were several instances in our survey, however, where the patient distinctly got their bug-related self-diagnosis wrong.

In one case, a family medicine physician made this discovery and clarification for a patient:

“Patient thought they had a growth on their nipple. Turned out to be a dog tick right on the tip of their nipple. It was engorged with blood and not milk.”

An infectious disease specialist also took the time to tell us about a suspected hair infestation.

“One of my patients claimed that beetle bugs had laid eggs in her hair! She even brought hair samples in a bag to prove it.”

What the samples turned out to actually be remains a medical mystery. The physician did not elaborate.

And finally, a pediatrician told us about a family that rushed in their 4-month-old because the baby appeared to be pooping worms. The family even brought in a soiled diaper to prove it.

“The poop was a yellowish liquid with brown fine strings that moved a little,” the doctor described. “I said, ‘Wait, did you feed the baby bananas?’ The room was in deadly silence, and the dad, with a look of terror on his face, confessed. I explained that bananas produce some fibers that look like worms in a liquid poop and they don't have to worry. But the mother almost killed the dad.”

In an age of misinformation, you have to give patients credit for trying to understand their health. But if there’s any major takeaway from our physician survey, it’s this: We have yet to come up with a digital solution that replicates the knowledge, perspective, and sense of humor of a seasoned physician.

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