Hypochondria of Advanced Medical Education (HAME) is a spectrum disorder ranging from acute to chronic that occurs when a person overreacts about his or her own medical problems due to an overload of knowledge about disease and dysfunction. This leads to distortion of reality and the inability to rationally process. Risk factors include being a healthcare professional, being a student in a healthcare field, having a type A personality, stress, and having comorbid medical conditions. This disorder can also occur in people with no prior medical issues. It is most commonly identified in healthcare students, ranging from medical students, PAs, nurse practitioners and others. This condition is the result of the constant inundation of comprehensive information regarding every disease known to man.
In this disorder, the student does not use rational clinical judgment and decision-making skills in diagnosing his or her own symptoms. Instead he or she reverts to a primal state of panic, throwing out the most likely benign diagnoses and instead attributing even the smallest of his or her ailments to catastrophic disease, nearly all of which lead to death. Of note, this only occurs for the individual herself and does not apply to her ability to diagnose others, except in the case of the student’s children, which only seems to intensify the symptoms. Usually the student can make accurate and rational diagnoses for non-blood related individuals but cannot apply those same algorithms for themselves or immediate family. For family members, this turns into sheer panic and an in-depth study of all possible ailments starting with the most life-threatening. The disease ranges from mild to moderate to severe, which is classified as the insomnia-producing, worst-case-scenario-imagining, assumed-to-be-life-threatening form.
Some examples include:
- Diagnosing ankylosing spondylitis rather than mechanical low back pain (probably due to lifting a 27 pound toddler on and off the potty 25,677 times per day)
- Diagnosing hypothyroidism instead of general life-related fatigue (see above toddler)
- Diagnosing a pheochromocytoma instead of anxiety (see above toddler)
- Attributing excessive thirst to a pituitary tumor instead of increased dietary consumption of salt (hyperphasia of snack foods related to said toddler)
- Diagnosing Meniere’s disease rather than sporadic tinitus that only happened one time (I was just feeling plain crazy this day I guess)
- Diagnosing cancer instead of about nearly anything else (because it’s CANCER. Yeah, I’ll say it again, CANCER.)
Only non-pharmacologic treatments are available at this time and include cessation of all activities that provoke the hypochondria including studying, mental rest in the form of binge-watching frivolous TV shows, margaritas, getting back normal lab results, and hearing a radiologist say “yes, you are actually perfectly fine.” Studies are currently being conducted on the use of Xanax for this disorder and counseling from a spouse has only shown negative outcomes. The only cure currently is removal of the individual from the healthcare setting but because this is unrealistic, studies show the next best treatment is completion of the advanced medical education. The disease seems to dissipate as the provider increases in skill and knowledge, although many providers never experience complete cessation of symptoms.
If you’re a family member of someone with HAME, there are support groups available for you, most likely in your immediate area. The best thing you can do to love and care for your family member is to support them during their education and let them give you as many physical examinations as they need to in order to feel that you are healthy and not dying of an obscure autoimmune disorder.
If you suffer from HAME, you’re not alone. I am sitting right there next to you, assuming I have gastric cancer instead of indigestion. But there is hope. There will be healing. And until then, stop looking up all your symptoms on UptoDate. Choose the benign diagnosis, even when it hurts. And keep up the good work studying. It will all be worth it in the end when you get those extra letters behind your name.
You will be worth it, including every single one of your moles that is not melanoma.