Blog | Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Information overload

This story*, about common pains like headache that could auger a more serious condition, raised an issue that's concerned me for some time.

There's so much information out there about various signs and symptoms of illness, and warnings about the perils of ignoring those signs, that it can be difficult to discern a clear message. A heart attack can present in myriad ways, from neck pain to a numb arm to tiredness to GI distress, and the signs are especially subtle for women. Are people really expected to run to the hospital every time they experience one of those symptoms? (I probably experience one of those at least three times a week, and I'm in a very unlikely demographic for heart attack.) And if people did, what havoc would that wreak on our already-overcrowded EDs?

I'm not sure of the solution. Certainly, any effort to inform people of warning signs and symptoms has to be maintained. I think it might help to ensure that messages to the public are as specific as possible, so people can differentiate indigestion from chest pain that's heart-related. It also may help to emphasize that having several of the telltale symptoms raises the alert level.

I know these ideas aren't perfect-- some heart attack and stroke signs really are subtle, and it's better to err on the safe side. I also realize that public health messages need to be simple, so that they can be remembered easily. But, personally, I'm apt to brush off indigestion or headaches because I don't want to be alarmist (or sit for hours in an ED), even though I know full well that these symptoms could indicate something worse. And I don't think I'm alone in that reaction.
What do you think, readers?

* This is not a source of news I would recommend; I only reference it because it inspired the post.