by Daphne Ford
A brief internet search for common symptoms such as headache, fatigue, aches and pains is likely to bring up worrisome results; amongst the most common include cancer, brain tumor and fibromyalgia. The accessibility of medical information online today is fast, easy and free. It isn’t hard to see why a younger, tech-savvy generation would opt out of a visit to the doctor’s office when a diagnosis can theoretically be conducted from the palm of one’s hand.
It may sound plausible and convenient, but these simple internet searches often lead to more anxiety than credible answers, a new brand of hypochondria has become apparent in the modern age.
A psychological phenomenon known as “cyberchondira,” has become a common affliction over the past ten years. Cyberchondria describes health-related anxiety caused by persistent visits to websites such as WebMD, Mayo Clinic and Medicine Net in search of answers to personal health questions.
In a 2013 study conducted by Psychologist Thomas Fergus of Baylor University, 454 of 512 subjects reported having ever searched for medical information online. Another 2013 study conducted by Makovsky Health and Kelton showed that the average American visits the doctor three times a year, but spends nearly 52 hours researching health information online. It has become increasingly common for patients to show up at the doctor’s office with a printout from the internet in-hand and a diagnosis already pinned down, or to self-diagnose at home and avoid professional consultation altogether.
Although younger, tech-savvy generations are used to encountering questionable information online, they are more susceptible to cyberchondria than those over the age of 30, who are less comfortable navigating the web. Cyberchondria is likely to effect low-income individuals without competent healthcare as well.
A major problem contributing to the commonality of cyberchondria today is the assumption that frequently visited health-related websites are as reliable as professional medical physicians. Many people avoid the doctor’s office and therefore fail to understand that their mild symptoms are not likely signs of an underlying, more serious condition, because it contradicts worrisome findings on the internet. The likelihood of a patient having a life-threatening ailment is very low compared to the chance that these symptoms are benign.
Neglecting to seek professional, medical advice can increase anxiety which can cause symptoms to worsen, creating a stressful and uncomfortable cycle. It is also unsafe to neglect proper medical care in the rare case that mild symptoms are an indication of something more serious.
Cyberchondria can stem from underlying psychological ailments such as depression and anxiety, which can impair a person’s emotional stability and interfere with his or her ability to distinguish whether or not information they find is reliable. This anxiety can be caused by outside sources, such as the unexpected death of a loved one or an epidemic in the community.
Fergus’ study found that amongst the 454 people who reported having searched for medical information online, those who suffered the greatest amount of anxiety regarding their health and searching online also had high scores on an Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IU), which measures how well a subject handles uncertainty about his or her future. The study concluded that “the relationship between the frequency of internet searches for medical information and health anxiety grew increasingly stronger as IU increased. This moderating effect of IU was not attributable to general distress. These results suggest that IU is important for better understanding the exacerbation of health anxiety in response to internet searches for medical information"
At a press release, Fergus further explained, “If I'm someone who doesn't like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, go to the doctor more frequently--and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities.”
Despite the increasing number of patients who get carried away on self-diagnostic websites, some physicians encourage patients to explore reliable, health-related sources on the internet. They feel that it can help to further educate patients on proper healthcare and make them more aware of the state of their own health.
The abundance of medical information available on the internet today is not necessarily a negative aspect of modern technology, but too much information without proper guidance can do far more harm than good.