Am I Sick??


Am I sick?  Yes, I am!  Somehow, I contracted pneumonia a few weeks before the start of the semester.  How do I know that I have pneumonia?  I was examined by a physician (two physicians, actually) and was given a chest X-ray.  The consensus of the physical exam and the X-ray pictures was the diagnosis of bacterial pneumonia. 

Of course, I already “knew” I had pneumonia before I even saw the doctors.  How did I know?  I talked to my friends and my Mom and together we diagnosed me.  To be clear, none of us has a medical degree, but that didn’t stop us.  After much discussion and a cursory review of the internet, we were confident in our conclusion.  All we needed was the doctor to agree with us (which we had no doubt he would).

At any given time of any day, we are all experiencing some sort of symptoms (e.g., fatigue, headache, dry/itchy skin, difficulty concentrating, sweating).  How do we know if these are symptoms we can ignore or if we need to be treated because we are actually “sick”?

The obvious answer is, of course, to seek the opinion of a health-care professional to determine if our symptoms are cause for concern.  Interestingly, this approach is rarely the first step most people take.  We are far more likely to ask a friend, neighbor, co-worker or family member to diagnose our symptoms before we seek medical attention.

Health Psychologists call this process “lay referral” (Freidson, 1961; Rothrock, 2004; Suls, Martin, & Leventhal, 1997).  It is common practice to ask our lay referral network of friends, family, and co-workers to help interpret our symptoms, diagnose us, and recommend a remedy before we seek any real medical attention.

Surprisingly, very few people who are approached for such advice decline to provide it!  Knowing full well that they have no medical background, members of our lay referral network willingly (sometimes insistently, or even unsolicited!) dole out diagnoses, advice, and sometimes even suggest a “second opinion” from another non-professional (e.g., “That sounds like something Meg in Accounting had last spring.  You should ask her.”).

Why do we put our health in the hands of people who we know are not qualified to help us?  There are several reasons for wide-spread use of the lay referral system: 

1)            It’s easy: It’s much easier to call/text a friend or lean over to a co-worker in the next cubicle to ask a question than it is to find time to schedule an appointment with a physician.

2)            It’s free:  Medical costs are rising.  Many people have little or no health care insurance.  Before we fork over the cost of a co-pay for an office visit, we want some reassurance that we are not wasting our hard-earned money.

3)            We’re scared:  If our symptoms are especially troubling (e.g., chest pain, a lump, or severe pain), we may want to delay getting bad news by seeking encouragement from our friends.  We’d rather hear that “It’s probably nothing” than have someone who actually knows what she’s talking about tell us we are going to die.

My professional opinion is not to ignore those little symptoms you are having.  Go ask your Aunt Milly what’s wrong with you!


Freidson, E. (1961). Patients’ views of medical practice.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Rothrock, N.E. (2004). Lay referral network. In A. I. Christensen, R. Martin, & J.M. Smyth (Eds.), Encyclopedia of

health psychology (p. 157). New York: Kluwer.

Suls, J., Martin, R., & Leventhal, H. (1997). Social comparison, lay referral and the decision to seek medical care. 

In B.P. Buunk & F.X. Gibbons (Eds.), Health, coping and well-being: Perspectives from social comparison theory (pp. 195-226). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

About Susan Sheffer

Professor of Psychology at Lewis University Areas of expertise include Psychology of Religion (relationship between science and faith); Health Psychology (physician-patient relationships/treatment compliance); Social Psychology (relationships); Psychology in the Workplace (Industrial/Organizational Psychology); Statistics; and pedagogy.

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