When Did the Internet Become Smarter Than My Doctor?

‘Tis the season to be flu-ey, which, for this writer, means following a doctor’s orders. So why does she feel like a pariah for trusting health-care providers’ advice more than web research?

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I regard myself as a 1980s kind of mom, modeled after how I perceive the parenting philosophy of the time during which I grew up. Take the epidural. Don’t breastfeed if you don’t want to. It’s okay if your kids eat a little bit of dirt and drink a little Capri Sun. Playing outside is good! So is Sesame Street. Everything in moderation. Don’t overthink it.

But during my last pregnancy, I found myself overthinking it, despite how proud I felt otherwise about going with the flow. With a wintertime pregnancy and a toddler in the petri dish that is day care, I came down with several sinus infections, and, regardless of wariness of antibiotics overuse, took (pregnancy-approved) antibiotics for them—twice. They made me feel better.

Then I foolishly googled “sinus infection and pregnancy” and read a host of stories from women who’d gone through sinus infections while pregnant. Most said that, Of course, they tried to avoid taking antibiotics—I even read one post on What to Expect When You’re Expecting, where a woman cried over the decision whether to take antibiotics for a UTI, because her friend had told her that antibiotics put holes in babies’ hearts. Seventy-five percent of my brain thought, This is ridiculous. But a noisy 25 percent wondered, Was I prescribed these in error? What do these faceless internet women know that my health-care practitioners don’t?

Of course, it’s good to be informed, but at what point are we overdoing it, and putting ourselves and our children in harm’s way?

To follow a doctor’s directives to the letter anymore has become practically countercultural to the counterculture. The anti-vaxxers have led this particular way, and the very fact that California has had to pass legislation on vaccination children shows just how large their numbers have grown. Many parents charge that the medical establishment, and especially the pharmaceutical companies, are conspiring against us all, to fill your innocent babe with mercury in order to get money from “big pharma,” chop off your infant son’s penis, and for some reason want to squelch the reality of all the holistic medicines out there that obviously totally work.

A latent message behind alternate medicine for children is that acquiring the hidden truth and living by it requires more effort, which then unlocks more knowledge, love and health. If you’re really invested you must also conduct “research,” on vaccinations, allergies, disorders and more. The tongue-in-cheek mantra of the satirical Facebook group Sanctimommy reads, “When you know better, you judge better,” which reflects a general tone of parents who truly do feel that their unverified but closely held beliefs somehow reflect a deeper commitment to their children, a truth that eludes lazy parents who just go along with whatever they’re told and buy whatever is shiniest and easiest-to-reach on the shelves. Like sunscreen, for instance: If you just do your research you’ll know that it is better to expose your kids to the risk of skin cancer than it is to expose your kids to the risks inherent in sunscreen chemicals.

Sometimes it seems like parents’ distrust of doctors is a defensive reaction to what they perceive as judgment of their lifestyles. I have a pediatric nurse friend who told me about patients unwilling to heed their doctors’ advice, including a woman who refused to stop co-sleeping despite the fact that she had woken up on top of her baby, and a marijuana-smoking mother who wouldn’t pump and dump before breastfeeding because she had heard that THC benefited babies’ brain development. “She later had to call that pediatrician back and re-hire him when she couldn’t find anyone else who agreed with her,” says the nurse.

My friend L. is a dermatologist who is exasperated with the anti-doctor view. “It’s frustrating when you work hard for someone, especially when a lot of it is behind the scenes, and then they call you lazy and greedy and act like you are in some big government conspiracy,” she says. Sometimes her patients outright accuse her of withholding information. “I mean, if we could fix you, we would!! Nobody wants to continue to deal with an angry patient if there is a way to make them better.” She also tires of the claims that she somehow directly benefits from what she prescribes. “I’m doing the biopsy to diagnose skin cancer. I’m prescribing the cream to treat a rash. I don’t get kickbacks from anybody.”

Personally, I think I become irked by the overconfidence of parents suspicious that there is secret truth out there that the rest of us aren’t in on. Do they truly think they’re so intelligent? That their children are going to be better than everyone else’s? (Answer: Yes, some of them do.) Moreover, they reflect an excess of privilege. This is often the same mother who so takes for granted access to food, clean water and medical care, that she then turns around and fetishizes the “natural, simple” ideal ways of the nebulous “African” mother who may have none of the above.

It is certainly a fact that some people are victimized by bad doctors, but in many of those cases, such as the patients of Kermit Gosnell, the victims are powerless, desperate people. They, and their children, are the ones who are truly in danger, not those us in care of the medical establishment and the time and means to question it. 


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