Online Searches Increase Anxieties and Delay a Proper Diagnosis
Current estimates suggest that roughly eight in every 10 Americans turn to the Internet for health information and advice. Sometimes their search will simply be to increase knowledge about certain diseases or conditions but increasingly there is a trend towards self-diagnosis in preference to seeking a clinical consultation with a doctor.
In a previous post on the topic of cyberchondria, I mentioned that Microsoft estimates that roughly two percent of all internet searches are health-related, with around a third of people escalating their search in order to investigate serious illnesses. The term cyberchondria refers to growing use of the internet by people often classified as the ’worried well’.
Worried well is not a term I like. There's a superior edge to it and it smacks somewhat of an accusation of self-indulgence. Health worries and uncertainties are things that deserve proper attention. The implications of seeking health information online is also something worthy of consideration as some of the latest statistics to emerge from The Information Standard, an independent body commissioned by the National Health Service in the UK, shows that four in 10 people put off visiting their doctor, with more than half saying they turn to the Internet instead. Reportedly, almost one in six was told by their doctor they'd had a “lucky escape” when they finally made a visit and were properly examined and diagnosed. More women (43 percent) delayed a visit to the doctor and were more likely to turn to go online for help.
Uncertainty is a feature of anxiety and it seems the less able a person is to tolerate uncertainty regarding their health the more likely they are to consider a wider range of possibilities as to the causes. Dr. Thomas Fergus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas has been studying Internet use in this regard. In a sample of 512 healthy adults with an average age of 33 he found uncertainty to be a key factor in higher levels of searching.
According to Dr. Baylor, who published his findings in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Bahavior and Social Networking, uncertainties lead to further anxieties, which lead to greater body monitoring and a higher likelihood of considering broader health implications. A simple headache for example could evolve into fears of a tumor and so on. Cyberchondria, he says, could be more harmful than its traditional version [hypochondria] because of the glut of sometimes dubious material to be found online.