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Fact: Women would rather phone a friend than a doctor for medical advice

...here's why

A few years ago, I was on a day-long reporting trip in rural Sindh when I began to feel a stomach ache akin to being stabbed with shards of glass. By the time I got back to the city, I could barely sit still. Nightmarish scenarios loomed: a burst appendix, a kidney infection. I went to a nearby hospital and confidently declared to the on-duty doctor that I had appendicitis. (That’s what watching too much House MD will do to you.) In my defence, I was in excruciating pain. To her credit, she didn’t laugh. She correctly diagnosed me with a urinary tract infection, and left me with a prescription and some advice on how to self-examine for appendicitis. 

“Tell your friends too,” she said. 

A few months later, I found myself sharing not just her advice, but also her prescription with one of my closest friends, who was also doubled over in pain and had no idea what to take. “It was easier to talk to you,” she told me recently. “It’s the trust factor. You can be graphic. And the kind of treatment you advised was very basic and worked immediately.” 

It’s scary to think that a friend trusted me enough to follow my medical advice. But over the years, we’ve had synced menstrual cycles and shared great amounts of paranoia, so it feels fairly easy to talk about our myriad health issues. And we’re not alone — women in metros from Delhi to Dhaka trust their friends with their lives.  

According to a 2008 survey published in the Journal Of Women’s Health in the US, nearly 30 percent of all women surveyed said they’d shared or borrowed a prescription, most commonly for allergies or pain. And the study found that people who looked online for health information were more likely to borrow or share medicines. 

Most women I spoke to admitted to asking their friends for some sort of medical advice, ranging from solutions for a heavier-than-usual period to birth control options. Sharing prescriptions, asking for help with diagnoses and taking the same medication as one’s friends is considered totally kosher and preferable to sitting in a doctor’s waiting room for hours. Ambreen Haider, a banker from Karachi, points out that sometimes it’s just more convenient, especially when “more often than not one falls sick on a public holiday.” Haider is cautious about the kind of advice she takes, though, and has a caveat: she only seeks counsel on non-allopathic medicine, such as herbal remedies for chest congestion and the ilk. Only one occasion called for swapping prescriptions. “I’d fallen ill with what appeared to be the flu,” she recalls. “It turned out to be an infection. My colleague and I both had the same symptoms, but four days apart. Whatever his doctor had prescribed wasn’t working for him, but I called my doctor to ask if I could take the same medicine — a strong antibiotic — and he said okay.”

It’s not just about easy accessibility; there’s a certain level of comfort with a friend that you can’t replicate with even the nicest of doctors. You can ask all the questions that send you to the deepest, darkest corners of WebMD in the middle of the night. A friend is bound to not give you a brusque send-off or judgey side-glance that many doctors, particularly gynaecologists, have become known for. At the very least, your friend can point you in the direction of an enlightened OB/GYN.

When feminist ezine The Ladies Finger published a report in 2015 on how prudish doctors can be harmful for your health, it inspired the creation of a crowdsourced directory of ‘gynaecologists we can trust’. (Search for the phrase online to find the Google doc.) Recommended by women across Indian towns and cities, professionals on this list can be relied on to provide unbiased medical attention, whether you’re a sexually active unmarried woman, a lesbian or a transgendered person. Sisterhood win!

“Women often discuss their preferred method of contraception with other women, and unlike a specialist they don’t know about their hormonal cycle, blood pressure, allergies, sugar levels, or familial history of cancer,” concedes Mehek Ali, a 25-year-old educator. “But most specialists don’t get into that information either!” You’re paying to see them, but that’s no guarantee you’ll get the face time you need with a doctor. After all, there’s a roomful of people waiting outside for the same privilege. 

Another reason why women seek counsel from their friends, and not a doctor, is the lack of empathy. Khizra Munir, a creative professional in Karachi, had that experience when she needed an ultrasound for a simple chest infection. The specialist turned around to ask her “what the real problem was”. “She posed as a potential confidant and was suggesting I spill the beans about being pregnant,” Munir recalls. “With conspiratorial behaviour like that it’s no wonder women avoid [check-ups] and turn to married friends who have frequented a gynaecologist and have some over-the-counter solutions.” 

Dr Amol Pawar, a consultant at the Nowrosjee Wadia Maternity Hospital in Mumbai, agrees that women prefer to ask friends about contraception and prenatal care. “It’s a matter of trying to gather information from people who’ve had similar experiences,” he says. But he sounds a note of caution on sharing prescriptions: “It is dangerous because each individual’s reaction to the same medication can be different. A physician’s approach is holistic and based on thorough examination.”

That approach, however, can be compromised if you catch the doctor in a non-work situation. Let’s say your best friend is a psychiatrist: is it ethical for her to write you a prescription for sleeping pills if your physician is out of town? According to a 2014 paper by The New England Journal of Medicine, this is murky territory and unless it’s an emergency, doctors should refrain from handing out casual medical advice. Yahoo Answers, on the other hand, is bound by no such code of conduct.

The internet offers a labyrinthine world of self-diagnosis. But surfing for medical advice doesn’t always elicit answers — or any kind of assurance. “There have been times I would Google stuff like why my period was late and the answers would really scare me — from something wrong with my ovaries to cysts to cancer,” Masood says. But even though medical advice online is often dubious, the internet does offer one advantage: absolute anonymity (well, obviously the government knows what you looked up). In Bangladesh, the Maya Apa mobile app features a Q&A section where people can send in queries anonymously, particularly on sexual health, and receive responses within a few hours. Anushelee Saha, a 34-year-old creative director from Gurgaon, has asked a friend about pain medication during a period and also looks up symptoms online, but has never borrowed a prescription. “I wouldn’t call it diagnosis, but I do turn to the internet to check on any unnatural gynaecological symptoms,” she said. “And if I find something that worries me, I then consult my gynaecologist.”  

It seems like self-diagnosis is everywhere, not just online. Mention an illness out aloud and people will fall over themselves to recommend whatever miracle drug they’re on, whether it’s an anti-depressant or flu medication. While making small talk at a work dinner, a friend casually mentioned that she had insomnia. Our entire table lit up in debate over dosages and sleep woes (It ran the gamut from “I can never sleep on planes!” to “I sleep far too much on planes!”) People shared cures they’d discovered (the consensus: downing half a bottle of cough syrup), and compared the morning-after effects. The conversation then turned to migraines. We compared the merits of muscle relaxants over painkillers, and heard about someone’s trippy migraine experiences. Had dessert not been served, I’m fairly sure someone would have been passing around pills like so many lines of coke.

As I came back home later that night, I couldn’t help but think about how many people were currently on the phone with their medical BFF: asking what they should take to fall asleep/ stay awake, or whether that mystery stomach ache is appendicitis. On that last one? It probably isn’t. Trust me.