Trust me, I’m a Doctor: The rise of cyberchondria


Meningitis, a brain tumour, the early signs of cardiac arrest and an over-active thyroid - are just a selection of the illnesses I have self-diagnosed myself with via the internet. It turned out I had a headache, caffeine withdrawal, lack of fitness and too many late nights to blame; not deadly diseases. Playing match-the-symptoms online is a dangerous game. But with the increase of health-related searches on Google – and even the introduction of web-based diagnosis websites – we may all be doomed to contract a new condition: cyberchondria.

Technological advances and an increased availability of information have resulted in us taking our fate into our own hands. There’s even an iPhone appfor it. STAR Analytical Services are developing software that allows patients to cough into their iPhones to tell them if they have a cold, flu, pneumonia or other respiratory diseases by the sound of their cough.

With so many health forums and websites online – as well as technology gimmicks – the more you search the internet for your aches and pains, the more you think you have Lyme disease rather than a dose of flu. Searching for health conditions online has now created a recognised online health condition: ‘cyberchondria’. As anxiety over health-related searches reaches pandemic heights, is self-diagnosis ever useful?

Last year, Microsoft researchers Eric Horvitz and Ryen White proved the increase of health-related search anxiety in a report, titled, Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search. 515 Microsoft employees as well as web-tracking thousands of web-users (with their permission) were surveyed. The results found that around 2 percent of all Windows Live searches were health-related. Out of 250,000 users, one third ‘escalated’ their original Web query in a subsequent search to a more serious condition.

The issue is something doctors are increasingly aware of; even more so forA40X1Pfuture doctors as children of the internet-revolution. “The internet is full of medical information, from lay-person’s opinion to NHS guidance for medical professionals. It has the potential to be both extremely useful and extremely dangerous,” says 22-year-old Oxford University student doctor, Rebecca Williams, “It depends on the type of information patients use to obtain information and how they use it.

“Any single symptom may be caused by hundreds of underlying conditions,” continues Rebecca, “A patient searching for such a symptom online may be faced with a long list of possible causes. A doctor is able to use their clinical knowledge and experience, from years of medical training and practice, to deduce what is more or less likely in a particular patient. However, a patient faced with such a list cannot sieve through and rule out unlikely or irrelevant diagnoses. They may be left anxious and unsure as to what is causing their symptom.”

And this anxiety is known has been coined ‘cyberchondria’. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘cyberchondria’ as “a hypochondriac who imagines that he or she has a particular disease based on medical information gleaned from the Internet”. Apparently, former American Gladiator Jonathan Byrnesays he struggles with serious cyberchondria and has even considered professional psychiatric treatment for it. But, anxiety aside, is the internet enabling patients to be more informed about potential illnesses – and even recognise an incorrect diagnosis?

Lindsey Middlemiss was wrongly diagnosed by her local GP, “I found a list of fibromyalgia symptoms on a US site and had almost every one,” says Lindsey to the Telegraph, “The more I looked into it, the more it fitted. I moved house and got a new GP, marched in and said, ‘I think this is what I have’, and they agreed.”

So even if you do visit your GP, it’s likely with your new found knowledge via the internet that you might disagree or even influence their diagnosis. After all, it’s only one person’s opinion and the internet’s second opinion is surely much worthier, covering a greater collective experience. Right?

“Having the resources available to research symptoms may give the patient a greater feeling of autonomy and control,” adds Rebecca, “People with no medical knowledge can research symptoms and conditions, whereas before they would be at the ‘mercy’ of a doctor’s medical opinion.”Cyberchondria2

And for some people, in some situations, this is vital. As Planet Cancer blogger Heidi Adams says of cancer suffers, “No one believed you, but then it was cancer. So, in a way, cyberchondria is a protective mechanism to keep us from getting hit by that truck again.”

Health organisations are now using the internet to diagnose and manage a potential pandemic. Aside from NHS Direct, the online resource for simple diagnosis, the rise of swine flu has resulted in the launching of a website to diagnose symptoms. It has actively encouraged us not to go to our GP and spread flu about the waiting room but stay at home, call a number or check online – and Tamiflu is then prescribed remotely. Indeed, as quoted on DirectGov’s website, ‘the National Pandemic Flu Service is a new online service that will assess your symptoms. If required, it will provide an authorisation number that can be used to collect antiviral medication from a local collection point’.

But it’s clear that self-diagnosis is not to be solely relied upon. Rebecca concludes, adding, “Diagnosis is not simply a case of matching symptoms to a disease. It is complex and involves an understanding of symptoms as well as the general health of the patient.

“It is important to remember that a doctor’s job is not only to diagnose and treat diseases; it is to educate patients about their health and any conditions they may have, to address worries and concerns – which may not always be medical – and to build a relationship with their patients to gain a better understanding of them.”

A quick search online for a cure for ‘cyberchondria’ and the internet collective suggests: stop consulting the Web and visit a doctor. Perhaps next time I’m tempted to consult Dr. Google, I’ll just make a trip to the humble docs and let them play spot-the-symptoms like they’re trained to do. Ignorance is bliss, after-all. That’s it; I’m turning the computer off. Now where’s that book? Ah yes, ‘The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You’.


2 comments for “Trust me, I’m a Doctor: The rise of cyberchondria”

  1. [...] [...]

    Posted by Trust me, I’m a Doctor: The rise of cyberchondria | swine flu pandemic | December 8, 2009, 2:05 am
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    Posted by Cyberchondria: do you have the symptoms? – Somewhat Useful | January 27, 2010, 11:58 am

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