In the beginning of the semester, sicknesses were spreading through campus like wildfire. You still can’t sit through a lecture for 10 straight seconds without hearing at least one cough (seriously, try it). You probably know all of this, because you were probably a victim of one of these sicknesses.
I surprisingly was not…until I went to the doctor.
On week two of college, my friend told me she had mono. I absolutely panicked when I remembered that we had shared a plate of pasta, drank each other’s drinks, and hung out practically every day. In an effort to be extra cautious, I scheduled an appointment with University Health Services that same day. They asked me, “What are your symptoms?”. I responded, “My best friend has mono”.
Once I got to the doctor, they said I had the best throat they had seen all day. They said I had absolutely no symptoms of any sicknesses. They wouldn’t even test me for mono. So, I left.
Over the following week, I noticed myself starting to get symptoms of a sickness. I was coughing, sneezing, aching, and most importantly, still worrying that I had mono.
This whole situation had me retracing my steps in the doctor’s office. My healthy-self opened the door to University Health, checked-in at the touch-screen station, hit an elevator button, signed a paper, took about 200 breaths of air at this point, and sat in a chair before I got into my actual appointment. Could my friend have nothing to do with my sickness? Could it have been one of these steps that potentially made me sick?
Let’s look at some possibilities:
- The commonly held belief: Going to the doctor (putative causal) makes you better (putative response).
- Reverse causation: Feeling better (putative causal) makes you go to the doctor (putative response). Note: this probably doesn’t happen much unless you are me and you try to get rid of a sickness that you don’t have.
- Confounding variable: Going to the doctor and getting medicine and/or proper care (confounding variable) makes you better. Once you think about this one, you realize that #1 probably isn’t true unless you’re already getting better without medicine and don’t catch any nasty germs in the doctor’s office. Even in that case, the doctor’s office still wouldn’t be causing you to get better.
The actual act of going to a doctor’s office (#1 in the above list), in my opinion, does more harm than anything else. Owen Hendley, MD, did a study in which he gathered thirty adults who had symptoms of a cold. Out of the thirty, sixteen tested positive for rhinovirus, the virus responsible for the common cold. Hendley then took six of these remaining participants’ mucus and placed it onto commonly-touched surfaces. He and his team found that, after one hour, the virus was still infectious in 22% of the cases. After a full day, the virus was only found infectious in 3% of cases.
In most doctor’s officers (and especially in University Health on the second week of school), it’s basically unheard of that the office wouldn’t have patients coming in and out every hour. In fact, I got the absolute last appointment available until a week and a half later. Of these people coming in and out, it would be logical to expect a good majority of them to be there for a sickness; therefore, the germs that they are leaving on different surfaces are the germs that you went to the doctor to get rid of in the first place. The irony!
My take-away from this is that maybe we should all go to the doctor on Monday because most offices are closed on Sunday’s, leaving 24 hours for bad germs to be practically gone. But even in that case, the people who get there before you on Monday will inevitably leave their germs on surfaces, and, according to this study, you’d have about a 1 out of 5 chance of being exposed to such germs.
So, I learned my lesson; unless I’m absolutely sure that I’m sick, I will not be scheduling a doctor’s appointment. Even then, I will be taking precautionary measures such as wearing a mask in the office and using hand sanitizer after I touch surfaces. A study done by University of Michigan during flu season showed that out of 1,000 students, the groups that were directed to wear masks and use hand sanitizer were 10-50% less likely to catch the flu. Even if there might only be a 10% chance of protection in some cases, it can’t hurt to take easy, effortless preventative measures.