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How is Healthcare Like A Garden Fungus?

Hot and humid weather has spurred on the growth of many of my outdoor plants, including bamboo, rosemary, and various peonies. However, I was unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of three fungal guests, only one of which I could identify: the dog stinkhorn. As its name suggests, it is one unpleasant-smelling organism. A certain mushroom website described it as looking like “a dog phallus dipped in excrement.” They are not too far off. But sadder still was the assertion that there is no known cure for this fungal invader.

As I considered my new mushroom issue, I suddenly realized that there are interesting parallels with the healthcare system. Let me explain.

First of all, what does the average person do when they experience a new medical symptom/problem? The person goes online to research the symptom for possible diagnoses and treatment options. Is s/he successful? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. In my case, I could only identify one of the three types of fungi in my garden, even after finding this very nice mushroom identifier tool. Why wasn’t I successful? I’m not a fungi expert, and really didn’t know how to navigate my way through the complex descriptors required to correctly identify the little beasts. The questions included the following:

Fungus Website (FW): Is the spore color olivacious?

Dr. Val: What part of the mushroom is the spore, and what kind of olive are you referring to? I don’t know how to answer that.

FW: Describe the stem type. Is it lateral, rudimentary, or absent? Does it have a volva?

Dr. Val: Um… If the stem is lateral, does that mean it’s sticking out of the side of the mushroom? What makes a stem rudimentary? Does that just mean it’s not fancy? And as for the last question… that sounds kind of pornographic and I don’t think I’d know a fungus volva if I saw one.

FW: Can the pore material be separated from the flesh of the cap?

Dr. Val: What’s pore material?

FW: Is the mushroom edible, hallucinogenic, or poisonous/suspect?

Dr. Val: Well, it definitely looks “suspect” but there’s no way I’m going to test it out for poisonous or hallucinogenic effects.

And so it went. I tried to answer some of the identifier questions to get me to the correct fungal I.D. and in the end I received this message, “we were unable to find a match for your search.”

When patients try to find a diagnosis for their symptoms online, they will inevitably have a similar experience. Medical speak is like a foreign language, subtle differences between signs and symptoms seem obvious to experts, but can be opaque to patients. And even a very bright and educated consumer is bound to get lost in figuring out appropriate next steps. I’m a savvy woman, but when it comes to mycology (the study of fungus), I’m completely lost. How much more complicated is it to navigate the subject of human disease for those who don’t have formal training in medicine?

My point is this – medicine is incredibly complex, and a knowlegeable heatlhcare provider is critical in helping patients successfully navigate the maze. With all the health information on the Internet, it’s tempting to self-diagnose. But that’s a dangerous proposition – one that might lead you to presume that (to use my analogy) a poisonous mushroom is edible, or that a life threatening symptom is innocuous.

The Internet can be a great educational tool, but use it in conjunction with a close relationship to a trusted expert. If you don’t have a primary care physician, you can find one here. If you’d like to have your question answered by a physician online, try the Revolution Health forums. Not every question is selected for a professional reply, but many are. For a guaranteed response, eDocAmerica is a great resource.

Good luck, and I hope that your garden remains fungus-free. I’m now going to try to find a mycologist to tell me if it’s really true that there’s “no cure” for the dog stinkhorn. Unless any of you know the answer?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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3 Responses to “How is Healthcare Like A Garden Fungus?”

  1. buckeye surgeon says:

    Nice post Val.  Took me 15 minutes to register, but I’m now a bona fide Revolution health devotee!

  2. ValJonesMD says:

    Dear Buckeye,

    Wow, I didn’t realize how long it takes to register! I’m so sorry… thanks for your tenacity. Now you can be one of 4 commenters on my blog.

  3. KimRN says:

    Interesting and very true – I was shocked at what I came across when I was searching for information on abnormal uterine bleeding – and I had the background to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    I had recommended WebMD to my mom (who would freak out at any over-the-top diagnoses), but I just realized Revolution Health would be a good site for her to be a member of.

    And there’s no fungus in my garden so far!  : 0

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