Since medical knowledge became freely available to anyone with an internet connection, the urge to seek out answers to symptoms has increased. A recent press report by John Markoff for the New York Times, focused on research produced by experts at Microsoft into “cyberchondria”, a term used to describe the internet equivalent of hypochondria. The report 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.
Hypochondriasis refers to imagined diseases or conditions that cause significant anxiety and distress to the sufferer. The condition tends to develop in people around their mid 20s to 30s and appears equally distributed between men and women. If left unchecked, the condition can develop into an all-consuming obsession, in which normal bodily sensations are taken to be symptoms of terrible diseases.
So, are you a “cyberchondriac”? According to Arthur Barsky, MD, author of, Worried Sick: Our Troubled Quest for Wellness (1988), illness is central to the identity of the hypochondriac. If you find yourself latching on to serious illnesses that frequently have ambiguous symptoms such as lethargy, flu-like symptoms, headaches, and so on, you could be something of a cyberchondriac.
During the Microsoft study into how people use the internet, one of the issues identified is that search engines don’t discriminate between minor and major illnesses. People who type in the word “headache” are as likely to uncover material about rare brain tumors as they are about other more common causes.
Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft researcher and holder of a medical degree, says that many people treat search engines as though they have expertise in medicine. But, warns Horvits, at the stage search engines currently operate they are little better than a blind retrieval tool, and most people focus on the first couple of results that appear.
The problem for cyberchondriacs, or people heading in that direction, is that they frequently focus on reputable medical websites. This leads to a furthering of anxieties as they find symptoms that appear to match their own. A WebMD feature on the topic of cyberchondria, cites professor of psychiatry, Brian Fallon, MD, as saying hyperchondria costs billions of dollars a year on unnecessary medical tests and treatments. But it is a problem that is real for the patient and one that deserves proper respect and attention by doctors. Fallon says that simply brushing aside concerns expressed by a patient will lead to suspicion that the doctor is not taking them seriously, “and so they’ll go shopping for another doctor and wind up repeating the process.”
Part of the answer to easing the anxieties of the cyberchondriac is for them to resist looking up their symptoms on the internet for the purpose of self-diagnosis. Far from reassuring people, “checking just seems to make things worse,” Fallon says.
Jerry Kennard is also co-founder of www.embarrassments.co.uk