One thing I remember very clearly from my childhood is my grandmother’s copy of Black’s Medical Dictionary. It sat in a cupboard within easy reach of her armchair and she brought it out when symptoms of illness appeared that she couldn’t quite identify. This dictionary first appeared in 1906 and it is now in its 42nd edition. It has long been considered a handy reference book for the home with its 5000+ definitions of medical terms, concepts and symptoms. I loved reading it, but it seem evident that pinning down what the symptoms really pointed to was almost impossible; a headache might be anything from the common cold to a something fatal. And that is the danger of self-diagnosis.
Fast forward to the Internet age and we now have a new problem – cyberchondria. Access to the Internet is almost universal and the Google search has replaced thumbing through a dictionary. Furthermore, the growing number of diagnostic websites, such as WebMD, seemingly offer an immediate answer to a hugely diverse range of symptoms, often with treatment recommendations in some cases. Indeed the trend towards medical self-diagnosis is spreading to such an extent that research scientists are writing papers on its hazards.
A paper by the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland reports that 80% of Americans use the Internet for diagnostic advice, and only 15% of them ever check the reliability of the source or the date when the information was published. The authors of the paper are concerned, because in addition to people basing their healthcare on wrong information, at least 51% happily share what they have found with their friends via social media or in chat rooms.
We’ve all probably met a hypochondriac at some point, but they only account for 4%-9% of the population visiting a GP. However, cyberchondria is affecting a much larger swathe of the population. And it’s not just a case of people getting the wrong information; medical experts say it is creating an, “unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology based on a review of search results.”
It is true that you can talk yourself into having a serious illness after a spell on Google. I recall an incident back when I worked at a London teaching hospital in the research department. I started feeling pains in my left hand and up my arm. I was surrounded by medical texts, and although Google didn’t exist then, I also had access to medical databases online. One of the local GPs popped into my office and I described my symptoms. His analysis, I have a bit of RSI due to using the mouse with my left hand and not sitting correctly when using the computer. I looked relieved. He asked me what I thought I had and I replied, probably angina. He laughed and told me to stop reading the medical dictionaries. I was worrying unnecessarily simply because I hadn’t gone to the doctor with the symptoms in the first place.
Psychology Today journal points out some other dangers with searching for symptoms. In fact, cyberchondria, which psychiatry defines as “excessively searching the web for health information” is a more exaggerated from of what many of us do. But, whereas many people only search occasionally and come to recognise unreliable advice, the cyberchondriac tends to believe in the worst possible diagnosis of their symptoms that they find. And the more they search, the worse the potential outcome is.
Furthermore, psychiatrist Emily Doherty-Rostrick reports that her research confirmed, “the more Internet health searching people engage in, the higher their levels of illness anxiety.” And, she adds, the more you search, the less reassurance you will find.
According to psychologists, there are five signs you’re a cyberchondriac:
- You check online for symptom information for 1-3 hours daily
- You fear having several different diseases
- When your symptoms are bad, you check them 3-4 times daily
- Searching online makes you feel more anxious
- You are probably healthier than those people with low anxiety if you go to a doctor and have it checked.
Some people are naturally more anxious about being ill and these are the folks most at risk of developing cyberchondria. The advice to cyberchondriacs is to first of all stop checking online; it will reduce your anxiety levels. If you have an unexplained rash, it is better to talk to your local pharmacist or make a doctor’s appointment – just don’t Google.