At some point, maybe we all suffer a little bit of what’s been dubbed “cyberchondria.” After all, who hasn’t looked up a pain, rash or other symptom on the Internet to self-diagnose? But a recent study estimated that the average American adult spends an astounding 52 hours a year looking up medical issues.
According to Dr. Sam Altstein, medical director of Beth Israel Medical Group, that statistic isn’t surprising. “I see a lot of folks who’ve been looking up symptoms on the Internet. At least once a day, someone comes in and has Googled a symptom and in seconds they’re told they have HIV or cancer or are about to die. It’s mostly very, very wrong.”
This type of self-misdiagnosis isn’t exactly a new phenomenon: Cyberchondria is the millennial offspring of old-fashioned newspaper health articles and advice columns.
“Patients would bring in articles from the newspaper or a magazine — some still do,” says Altstein. “But that was more of a background hum. Now with the Internet, it’s more of a roar.”
When does it become a problem?
Someone who is spending an inordinate amount of time looking up symptoms on the Internet should see a doctor. He or she might have hypochondriasis, also known as hypochondria — excessive worrying about illness, which in itself is a sickness.
“That’s a very real condition, and the Internet feeds on that,” says Altstein. “We have to hear these patients out and guide them, but it’s hard to combat phobias. [To them,] an anecdote is more powerful than a study with real evidence, or even a real diagnosis.”
Stressing the person and the system
Hypochondriac or not, anxiety caused by worrying about possible illness adds stress to both the individual and the healthcare system.
“It impacts the patient’s life if they’re taking time off work and spending time on the Internet doing this. It adds unnecessary stress to their lives,” says Altstein. “It drives up costs with extraneous tests. We can’t blow off someone who comes in with a health concern. We need to at least do a physical exam or blood tests. They might get X-rays, which give unnecessary radiation.”
Researching symptoms or illnesses on the Internet can sometimes help, however — especially for minor issues that can be treated easily at home, but only if the information is reliable.
“You have to look carefully at who’s writing the advice,” Altstein says. “If you just put a symptom into a search engine, then all sorts of non-medical sites or blogs come up. These probably won’t have any research behind them. Choose medical sites like the Mayo Clinic’s and Web M.D., which have a better perspective.”
If you think you have an unreasonable fixation with self-diagnosis via the Web, Altstein advises seeking help. “If a patient comes to me and is clicking endlessly on the Internet looking at illnesses, then this is a new anxiety disorder, probably affecting a person functioning normally. We have to manage it and address concerns. I advise a combination of SSRI [anti-anxiety] meds to manage the condition in conjunction with psychotherapy to find the underlying reason why they are so afraid of illness or obsessed with being sick.”