What is Cyberchondia?
Say you’ve woken up with a sore throat, or there’s a small rash on your arm. Concerns about our medical wellbeing can crop up at any time, but in the past, these concerns would either soon disappear or, if the symptoms became serious enough, we’d go and see the doctor for a professional opinion. But with the birth of the internet and online health services, a quick diagnosis is only a click away.
Now, it seems, we’re all turning to online sources for a diagnosis, whether it’s deemed a legitimate source or not. This only serves to heighten our anxiety and despite worsening pseudo-diagnoses, we still continue to go back for more. This is a diagnosis in itself: cyberchondria. Cyberchondriacs compulsively search the web for information about a particular real or imagined symptoms of illness.
Why is it bad?
Cyberchondria is on the rise. A study conducted by Pew Research indicates that 35% of people use the internet to diagnose their health issues, like Mayo Clinic, WebMD and Everyday Health.
But the issue with Googling your symptoms is that it produces results that range from mild to life-threatening. Typing ‘cold’ into Google brings up everything from common colds to sinus infections to lung disease. And, as Business Insider points out, even the trusted medical sites yeild such results: WebMD’s symptom checker generates over 50 results for the word ‘cough’, “ranging in severity from the common cold to oesophageal cancer”.
Whereas a diagnosis from a doctor keeps these streams of potential results to the confines of their mind, telling you only the professionally informed result you need to know, the web allows you to explore the terrifying possibilities and make an ill-informed judgement for yourself.
Cyberchondria is a relatively new issue, but with the ever-evolving world of smartphones, laptops, WiFi and high-speed internet, cyberchondria is becoming more and more prevalent. In September 2017, a study by the Imperial College London found that trips to hospitals and clinics for health anxieties bought on by internet diagnoses had cost the NHS roughly £420 million a year in outpatient appointments alone, with millions more spent on unnecessary tests and scans.
Researchers for the study said the internet was feeding a ‘silent epidemic’ of health anxiety, where harmless ailments were being mistaken for catastrophic medical issues. They added that a growing use of fitness trackers was likely to increase these levels of hypochondria, putting more pressure on cardiac and neurology clinics.
Professor Peter Tyrer, lead author of the research, said: “People now go to their GPs with a whole list of things they've looked up on the internet and say 'what do you make of this?', and the poor GP, five minutes into the consultation, has four pages of reading to do. Dr Google is very informative but he doesn't put things in the right proportion.”
What can be done about it?
One solution put forward by researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland is for experts to annotate their online diagnoses with relevant statistics for each different illness. But doctors and researchers agree that online health information isn’t necessarily bad in its entirety. In fact, for some it can be the ideal way for people to manage their symptoms and maintain their health. But if you’re truly feeling unwell, perhaps skip the online diagnosis and head straight to the doctor.
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