In the digital age, education and learning are essentially limitless thanks to the wealth of online information right at our fingertips, just waiting to be consumed with the simple click of a button. But what are the effects when all this information doesn’t educate, but in fact misinforms and even harms those who consume it? The healthcare industry in particular is dealing with and trying to tackle such a problem, with the emergence and spread of a new disease: cyberchondria.
Coined by a British newspaper in the early 2000s, cyberchondria is a riff on the term hypochondria and refers to “deep-rooted anxiety” and perceived illness due to interaction with and consumption of online information. With one in 20 Google searches being for healthcare information, most people have probably freaked themselves out once or twice by misdiagnosing a particular symptom thanks to online resources.
However, psychiatrist Kelli Harding of Columbia University Medical Center points out that true cyberchondria only becomes an issue when it starts to interfere with a person’s life on a daily basis, such as affecting their work attendance or social engagement. It is then that cyberchondria becomes not just a quirky new online term to throw around, but an actual mental illness with repercussions that go beyond personal health.
“The big irony is that people tend to be less healthy when they are preoccupied with their health as opposed to exercising,” says Harding, referring to the stress caused by obsessing over online searches and potential illnesses. By concerning themselves with misinformation and nonexistent problems, patients essentially create a whole new health issue that is real.
Cyberchondriacs are also more prone to give in and buy false treatments from infomercials and from online. The internet is a sort of hunting ground for producers of these products, where exaggerated but convincing misinformation can easily be posted and seen by millions of people. “They want you to be afraid,” says Harding. “There’s no regulation on that.”
Low-income people who may not be able to see a doctor regularly, but who do have internet and smartphone access, are at an even greater risk for misdiagnosis. Senior Medical Consultant of Premier Medicare in India, Dr. G. Ilangovan, says, “Patients cannot be blamed as they are vulnerable to any suggestion when they are anxious.”
Fellow physicians have also pointed out that it’s only natural for the mind to pick up on negative facts faster that the positive ones while searching for medical information. And while medical professionals in general don’t discourage personal research on the patient’s part, it is advised that the patient wait to seek out second and third opinions until after their doctor’s visit and only from reliable sources.
A 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal showed that 22 accredited online “symptom checkers” overstated patients’ health risks. Digital resources also have no way of truly understanding an individual patient’s health history or any other factors that uniquely affect their symptoms.
While healthcare patients can reap many benefits from online information, it’s safe to say that diagnosing illnesses is best left to the professionals, and should be done in a face-to-face doctor visit. And when it comes to treating cyberchondria or preventing it in the first place, physicians recommend something quite simple. Simply disengage from the internet. “Encourage people to put their phones down and be out living life,” Kelli Harding says. “Distraction is often a marvelous thing when it comes to averting health concerns.”
Aptly named, Enclothed Cognition is the official Medelita blog for medical professionals interested in topics relevant to a discerning and inquisitive audience. Medelita was founded by a licensed clinician who felt strongly about the connection between focus, poise and appearance.