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November 27, 2012

Sick Is the New Black

You race to the doctor with sniffles; store Z-packs in your desk drawer; and you know a specialist for every bump, bruise, and body part. Why are so many women freaking out about getting sick? Sarah Z. Wexler explores the growing phenomenon.

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I once knew a woman in her mid-20s — let's call her Kate — who, in the three years we worked together, never had a cold. That's not to say Kate never took a sick day, because she took plenty. Whenever she was under the weather — scratchy throat, upset stomach, you name it — she immediately informed our boss she was feeling ill and ran to the doctor's office. And if that doctor didn't send Kate home with a prescription for Zithromax (or "Z-pack," as she familiarly called it), she'd make an appointment with a specialist, certain that her general practitioner had overlooked something critical. Bronchitis. Kidney infection. A parasite. Whatever. Over the course of our working relationship, I'd received dozens of dire e-mails from Kate in which she expressed utter certainty that she'd come down with every malady imaginable short of West Nile. (And had we not been experiencing the snowiest winter in history last year, I'm certain she'd have taken her mosquito bites to an epidemiologist for a look, too.)

To be clear, Kate wasn't a classic hypochondriac, worrying that every paper cut was a staph infection waiting to happen. She was smart, educated, and driven, a textbook overachiever who happened to use doctors the way Beyoncé wannabes use YouTube — to prove they're somehow special, though, let's face it, most of the time they really aren't. Odds are good you know someone just like Kate — she's one of the millions of young women who have no hesitation heading to the doctor at the first sign of flushed cheeks. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a woman between the ages of 18 and 44 averaged 2.6 doctor visits a year in 1995. As of 2009, it was about 3.2 visits. (Men averaged only 1.4 visits a year in 2009.) That amounts to roughly 34 million more doctor visits a year — and if you've ever stewed in your physician's waiting area for almost an hour just to see her for all of 10 minutes, you understand very well what the net effect of all those extra visits is.

So why are more women heading to the doctor more often? "It's not likely because they're sicker than they used to be," says Elaine Larson, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University School of Public Health. Larson thinks it's all those over-wrought, soft-lens TV ads for prescription drugs — strict regulations governing direct-to-consumer advertising were loosened up in 1997 — that encourage patients to essentially diagnose themselves and "'ask their doctor' about every symptom." In fact, an FDA study conducted in 2002 confirmed a link between drug ads and a surge in patient inquiries about specific brand-name medications.

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