Have you ever tried to find a treatment for a really bad flu on Google? How about a persistent pimple that won’t go away? Has your throat hurt really badly that you decided to search for instant relief through the internet? Then you’re one of the millions who self-diagnose. Trying to name what kind of medical problem one has by using books, medical dictionaries, past personal or non personal experiences, the internet, or even software applications, is called self-diagnosis. With the wealth of information from the information superhighway, anyone of any age can readily access health related information through the new media. Innovative handy digital devices make information access as convenient as breathing. Data is a finger tap away. Although there are no current statistics as to the number of Filipino internet users who self-diagnose, this issue is certainly a reality. In fact, as a result of the said issue, a new condition has emerged — Cyberchondria.
What is Cyberchondria?
According to Wikipedia, Cyberchondria is the result of internet research on health related issues. It refers to the baseless increase of a person’s anxiety because of the online medical information he or she has gathered. The term is coined from the prefix “cyber” which pertains to anything of computers, information systems, virtual reality and the Internet (Encarta, 2009), and the psychological condition called hypochondria. People with hypochondria are preoccupied with their health and claim to feel real symptoms. They believe that they have a serious illness but upon the doctor’s examination, there is no objective evidence of the illness they claim to have. The British Medical Journal publication “Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry” in 2003 said that the word cyberchondria was first used in a British newspaper to refer to the use of the internet health websites to add to anxiety about health. Since the term hypochondria carries with it a rather offensive connotation, research studies have clarified that because the said word means “excessive concern about health”, cyberchondria is simply “online concern about health”.
Cyberchondria and Search Engines
Microsoft, a leading multinational computer industry that offers software, video game products, and online service conducted a comprehensive research in 2008 on cyberchondria and search engines like Google and Yahoo. Researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz concluded that if someone who does not have proper training and education in medicine searches the web about a symptom he or she has, they will most probably have increased anxiety. Aside from the escalation of worry, another result is the waste of time and money because of unnecessary doctor visits. The study also revealed that people who find medical information about their symptom online neglect to study all other options but rather focus on the first few results of the search.
Among the 500 respondents that they questioned, nine out of ten admit that after researching on a minor symptom online, they were led to research about a much worse medical illness. They also found out that most users that self-diagnose online thought that the search results that appear are ranked according to the probability of them having that disease. This is actually not the real case since search engines rank search results according to computerized mathematic procedures called algorithms. Results are ranked according to how many times the searched word is found on the web page, the number of mouse clicks a web page receives and the number of other website links on the page.
What causes Cyberchondria?
Researchers and doctors alike have come up with reasons why online users have the tendency to develop cyberchondria. 1. Dr. Stephanie Bown, director of policy and communication of the Medical Protection Society, the leading provider of comprehensive professional insurance for doctors, dentists and health practitioners worldwide, said that the common people may not be able to correctly understand and interpret difficult medical information and terminology (GP Online, 2008). 2. Dr. Bown further said that web information on a certain minor symptom is so varied and so innumerable that they are conflicting. This causes confusion to the common person.
3. Microsoft researchers found out that online users do not have an accurate understanding of how search engines work. 4. Online users do not know that correct diagnosis of a certain condition requires so many considerations like age, family, and lifestyle. Dr. Google does not take up these factors into consideration. 5. For those who already suffer from anxiety, it is already a fact that they think worst of any circumstance. The unfiltered medical information will give anxious people the chance to know the worst case scenario about a minor symptom, which they will certainly brood over about.
How to Avoid Cyberchondria
1. Dr. Stewart Segal, an American Family Physician who has dealt with patients having cyberchondria explains that online users need to understand the difference between medical “possibility and probability”. Possibility is always a certain likelihood, but medical probability is otherwise. Important health factors need to be considered very well before an illness could be found probable for a person. Therefore, anything is possible on the Internet, but it is not probable. 2. Understand how New Media marketing works. Information is packaged as a commodity online in order to attract more readers. Your online diagnosis may sound very real, but read any information with discernment.
3. Look for credible health websites. Go for the reliable sites that have bona fide doctors and health practitioners as contributors. There are now medical online clinics where doctors can be contacted through online communication anytime of the day, such as WebMD. In our country however, online clinics are not yet available, except for a few practitioners who offer help from their personal web pages. Then again, do not let the information you get from online symptom checkers worry you. Think of possibility and probability.
4. Do not self-treat based on information from the internet, especially the use of medications. Your incorrect treatment may lead to other medical concerns, which will make things, including anxiety worse. Buying drugs online isn’t very reliable, too. Websites may offer medication along with your diagnosis. Do not fall for it, this is still marketing strategy. Also there may be lapses as to how we understand terminologies since we are not medically trained. Misunderstandings of dosages and other pertinent medical information is very dangerous.
5. Do not stick to any single diagnosis, which goes both for the public and physicians alike. This leads to errors. Doctors always study more than one diagnosis and they usually begin considering the least serious. Their initial findings are subject to tests and conclusive verifications before the final diagnosis is reached. 6. If you have the information you need, consult your doctor with an open mind. Trust your physician that he or she can come up with a way better diagnosis than Dr. Google or Yahoo.
7. Do not worry yourself to death. Stress from anxiety can aggravate little symptoms that we feel. The best way to take care of our health is to live healthy and avoid worry.
Remember that online medical health information can work two ways: for you or against you. How we handle what we find out online will determine this. Knowledge may be very helpful, but it can also be very crippling. You choose.
Facebook Testimonials on “Have you tried online self-diagnosis?” “ I wouldn’t recommend consulting the internet. tendency is you will get more anxious. my daughter has G6PD deficiency and when i looked it up the internet all i can say is poor baby but when her pedia explained it to us it is just a simple case and what we really need to avoid is feeding her soy. well her world won’t end if she can’t taste taho 😉 and my boy then had umbilical granuloma which is quite nerve wracking for me thinking it will be cauterized or operated when all the pediatric surgeon did was only tie it with a suture and after 1 week it is as if nothing happened…[sic]” -Kim Gumban Tinedo, 31
“Yes i did! It helped me in so many ways when I was pregnant. Since it was difficult for us to get an obstetrician who can speak English here in Dalian,China, I relied on the internet about what’s happening with me and my baby. There was one instance when we went to Beijing for general check-up and we were informed on the phone a week later that I will have a trisomy 21 baby and was advised to go for amniocentesis. We were alarmed when we heard about their findings but after several researches on the internet we didn’t submit to their suggestion but instead we relied on what we’ve researched and waited for my due date. Perhaps I just happened to get a reliable site which was perfectly right to what I’m looking for. I even get a weekly update on what to do and it did serve as my guide without consulting the OB anymore. And now everything’s fine with me and the baby is normal! Thanks to the internet! [sic]” – PS Charity Esmaya Alibogha, 32
“Yes… just last week, the result of our annual PE for employees came out. my result showed a lot of recommendations due to some health risks. And one of them was my high albumin result( 2+) … i was alarmed. i googled it and found out that it can lead to serious renal problems if it progresses. I was anxious the whole day…[sic]” – Ryan Mark Pelaez, 32
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