When the Diagnosis Is Cyberchondria

Studies show many Americans suffer from this Internet-era form of anxiety.

Suzanne woke up with a sore throat, a fever and a strange lump on her neck. She reached for her computer, opened a search engine, and entered the terms “fever” and “neck lump.” Page after page of scary results popped up. She zeroed in on an exotic virus common to Southeast Asia. Her seatmate on the plane last week had been returning from a vacation in Thailand—could he have been harboring the virus? Suzanne spent a sleepless night until her appointment the next day when her doctor assured her she had a case of common strep throat and a slightly swollen lymph gland. An antibiotic prescription put her on her way to a speedy recovery.

This is not an uncommon scenario today. In the old days, if we noticed a troubling rash, ache or digestive disturbance, we would most likely make an appointment with our doctor, go in and have our symptoms checked out. Maybe before the appointment, we’d take our medical encyclopedia off the shelf and riffle through the common ailments described within. But today, our diagnostic path can be quite different! Many Americans head right to “Dr. Google,” as doctors wryly say.

Today, many thousands of websites offer health information, but few web surfers have the savvy to tell good information from bad as they check out their symptoms. You might think this is most common in younger people, but according to the American Medical Association, over half of today’s seniors also research health topics online. And according to the Pew Research Center, family caregivers are even more likely than the average American to turn to the Web for healthcare information.

Online health research can be helpful, experts say—but it can just as likely send us down the wrong path, preventing us from getting effective treatment, and, more and more, sending us into a spiral of worry that medical pundits call “cyberchondria.” A web search might turn up pages of results—out of context and in no particular order when it comes to reliability of information. And human nature being what it is, we’re most likely to fixate on the most dire possibility. A patient might spend days worried that a sinus headache is a brain tumor … or that a bout of the flu could be colon cancer … or that a sprained ankle is a serious break. A few years ago, Microsoft even took note of the problem. Their research department reported, “The Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when the Web is employed as a diagnostic procedure."

How can we avoid stumbling into a spiral of worry and bad self-diagnosis that could, ironically, keep us from getting the medical help we need?

One important step is to build our awareness of the worth of various online sources. Here are four things to remember before you consult online health resources:

  1. Not all Web content is created equal. The Web is home to much reliable health information—and plenty of useless material, as well. A good rule is that if you would trust the source of the content in real life, the site is more likely to be trustworthy. Websites sponsored by government agencies, universities, hospitals and other reputable healthcare organizations and companies are most likely to offer good, up-to-date information—as well as the right level of caution to prevent consumers from self-diagnosing and making decisions with incomplete information. These sites are designed to disseminate information, promote health and provide updates as a service to the clients and customers they serve.
  2. Don't rely on random search engine searches. Some searchers begin with a particular website where they know they will find information on the topic they are interested in; others merely enter the name of their symptoms or diagnosis in a search engine box, and click on the results. Remember, search terms may turn up just about anything! The best way to research a health condition or health procedure you're interested in is to begin with the website of an authority on that topic. For example, Suzanne, above, might visit the site of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health sites. There she would find an A-Z list of topics, where she could read information about strep throat. Also remember that “symptom checker” apps aren’t that good at making a diagnosis. Kaiser Health News recently reported that while they’re better than random search engine searches, they miss the mark at least half the time.
  3. Information on forums, bulletin boards and social media pages is usually posted by non-experts. The Pew Research Center study found that many people are eager to share their experiences of a particular disease or treatment; many other people are eager to read those accounts. Discussion boards, chat rooms and social media groups have created a global backyard fence, and it’s human nature to seek out these sites for emotional support and online companionship. But the medical information participants post is often inaccurate. Rarely are these boards moderated by a qualified professional. These sites also are often infiltrated by commercial posters who try to sell their products.
  4. Bad products may have great-looking websites. On the Web, just as in the real world, thousands of unscrupulous businesses offer miracle cures, useless medications and treatments, ambulance-chaser attorney services, and elaborate but medically unsound "theories" of disease. These businesses prey on vulnerable consumers and bilk the American public out of billions of dollars a year ... as well as preventing their victims from getting the care they really need. They may spend more on the site than they do producing their product—and they also may spend millions on shady search engine techniques to ensure a symptom search will lure unsuspecting users to their site.

Above all, it's important to remember that online healthcare information cannot take the place of advice from your own doctor. Fortunately, more and more healthcare providers and professional medical associations are realizing that their own Web presence can help support patient education by offering sound consumer advice.

A Good Place to Start Your Search

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that is responsible for health-related research. It is divided into 27 institutes and centers, each of which has a website with quality consumer information covering a particular aspect of healthcare.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine is another great place to begin your search. The NLM website includes information on a wide variety of health topics and each topic includes an extensive collection of approved links to web information, videos, tutorials from reputable institutions and organizations nationwide.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2016.