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Could the Diagnosis Be Cyberchondria?

Man scratching head

Edward noticed a strange red patch on the top of his head. It grew larger during the course of a week. Concerned, Edward sat down at his computer, went to his favorite search engine and entered the term "round skin sore." The search yielded many articles suggesting that his symptom could be a sign of skin cancer, Lyme disease, shingles ... the list was long and scary. When Edward finally went to the doctor, however, the diagnosis was ringworm—a harmless fungal infection easily treated with topical or oral medication.

Many patients today arrive at their healthcare appointments having already researched their symptoms on the Internet. Doctors report that some patients already seem sure of their diagnosis, having made the decision "with the help of Dr. Google." The growing quantity of online healthcare information allows laypersons to access valuable information about their health. But when it comes to diagnosing an illness, the chances are good that the patient will come away from their search with a mistaken idea about what their symptoms mean.

In the worst case, patients self-diagnose and treat the wrong condition, meanwhile delaying treatment that would offer a real cure. For example, in the case above, what if Edward really did have skin cancer, but decided it was ringworm?

Other patients develop unfounded fears as they research their symptoms online. Medical pundits coined the term "cyberchondria" to describe this form of anxiety. A patient might spend days worried that a sinus headache is a brain tumor … or that a bout of the flu is colon cancer … or that a simple head cold is a rare tropical virus. The Microsoft Corporation has even taken note of the problem; a recent study performed by their research department stated, "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."

Erroneous self-diagnosis is not a new phenomenon, of course. Medical and symptom guides, a steady seller at bookstores, are found in the home library of many families, useful to consult when symptoms arise. However, these books provide context, perspective and a manageable amount of information. Looking for similar health information online will often summon forth page after page of results—out of context and in no particular order when it comes to the reliability of the information.

Medical professionals have trained for years to be able to identify specific illnesses. They know when tests and a specialist are needed. Early in medical school, as they were learning about the vast array of human health conditions, they were taught the old saying, “When you hear hoof beats, think of horses, not zebras,” a reminder to rule out common conditions before considering rare and exotic ailments. Web searchers, however, often see zebras! They get caught up in "symptom matching" as they try to shoehorn all their current aches and pains into one disease.

What’s the lesson here? The Internet is a great resource to help us take charge of our own wellness and to become better informed about our own health and that of our families. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, 80 percent of today’s Internet users look for health information online, and family caregivers are even more likely than the average person to do so.

Seniors are the fastest-growing group to go online. A recent study in The Journal of Health and Aging says that although seniors are less likely to research their health condition online, they are the most likely to trust the information they find.  A poll in the September 2012 issue of Caring Right at Home found that almost half of all respondents provide computer "tech support" for their parents or other older loved ones. Next time you are deleting a virus or installing an upgrade on your parents’ computer, you also might want to discuss the topic of online health information with them. Here are some things savvy Web surfers should remember:

  • As you are researching a health topic, remember that the best online information comes from the websites of respected organizations and institutions, such as federal government agencies, universities, medical associations and reputable healthcare companies—organizations that are considered trustworthy "in real life."

  • Those of us without medical training may use search terms like "funny rash on nose" or "strange noise in my ear" rather than "eczema" or "tinnitus." The search results we get from layman’s terms often come from discussion groups, blog comments, reader forums and chat sites where users post a question about a health topic, and other readers (most with no medical training whatsoever) post responses that most likely are based on anecdotal evidence and opinion.

  • Above all, remember that no matter how reputable a website is, it can’t take the place of advice from your healthcare provider, who spent years in medical school learning the subtleties of the human body. Don’t lose sleep anxiously Web surfing from one healthcare site to another. When in doubt, call your doctor.

Learn More

The National Institutes of Health consumer resources page is a great place to begin the search for reputable healthcare information, tools and links to other reliable online sources.

For an in-depth look at Web-related hypochondria and the growth of healthcare websites, see the Microsoft study, "Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search."   

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned, franchised providers of in-home care services. 


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