The Internet has quite literally changed the way people deal with their health, offering everything from advice on diets to support communities for people with various health conditions to scientific information on diseases, their diagnosis, and their treatments.
While this access to information has empowered millions of people in dealing with their health, there are some downsides to having unlimited – and unfiltered – access to health and medical information.
Just this week, results from a study in Hong Kong found that when people research their own health conditions online, they are more likely not only to misdiagnose their condition, but to diagnose themselves with the “worse-case scenario” condition for their symptoms, often deciding they are suffering from a condition that is both serious and rare. The researchers also found that people are more likely to do this when looking for information on their own conditions than when researching a condition for someone they know.
For example, researchers told study participants that they were suffering from a number of flu-like symptoms, then asked the participants if they believed they suffered from “regular” flu or the rarer, potentially more serious H1N1 (“swine”) flu. When the participants diagnosed themselves, they were more likely to say they were suffering from H1N1 flu, while they were more likely to diagnosis the same symptoms in others as “regular” flu.
As the scientists point out, the explanation for this pattern in diagnosis is likely due to “psychological distancing.” As study author Dengfeng Yan explains, people tend to rely on broader kinds of information – things such as statistics on how likely it is for someone to suffer from a condition – when they’re thinking of other people. When they’re focused on themselves, or even close family members, they will hone their attention down to the specific symptoms of an individual. This explains why they believe others have conditions that are less rare, while they think they themselves have the rarer or more serious condition.
This may explain the rise in so-called cyberchondria, a form of the generalized anxiety order hypochondria that is being fueled by the increased availability of health information on the Internet. Hypochondria (also called hypochondriasis) is a Somatoform Disorder, meaning it’s one of a number of conditions characterized by symptoms that point to physical illness or injury without clear medical cause. According to WebMD, hypochondria is defined as “worry over an imagined illness with an exaggeration of symptoms, no matter how insignificant, that lasts more than six months and causes significant distress.” Often it’s triggered by an actual illness or that of a friend or family member.
Hypochondria can affect people in a number of ways. First, the condition can be very anxiety-producing, and it can eventually become so disruptive that it ends up harming their work and personal lives. Because the hypochondriac does not understand that everyone deals with some type of physical symptom much of the time (and that this is overwhelmingly normal), he or she has a constant, hyper-awareness of his or her body and symptoms. Thus, a simple headache, in a hypochondriac’s mind, can be a sign of a tumor or an aneurysm, or an upset stomach can be a symptom of anything from cancer to Crohn’s disease.
The hypochondriac often lives in constant fear of something being wrong with them, which, as you can imagine, is a difficult way to live. It’s important to remember, experts say, that people who have this condition aren’t simply seeking attention or “faking” their symptoms. They actually are experiencing anxiety and seeking relief from that distress in the best ways they feel they can.
If you add the Internet into this mix, it’s clear how potentially harmful unlimited – and unfiltered – access to health information can be for people who suffer from this condition. Even the rarest diseases are discussed in-depth on the Internet, and because “symptom checker” programs on websites are designed to match all conditions with a list of symptoms, an anxious person will be presented with a list of diseases that range from mild to life-threatening, even if the chance of the life-threatening conditions is incredibly slight.
If we factor in the recent Hong Kong study and its finding that people – even those who do not suffer from hypochondria – will often leap to the worst case when diagnosing their symptoms, it’s clear that the Web may be causing anyone who tries to diagnose themselves using Internet searches to lose sleep over his or her health.
Here are some tips for using the Internet as a helpful tool for managing your health:
- Remember that much of the health information online is intended to simply present information, and to be used as a tool for diagnosis. One of the things that doctors are trained to do is filter the vast stores of information on health conditions based on a particular patient and his or her health history. It’s by this kind of careful selection of information that a proper diagnosis is made.
- Closely related to this, remember that everything on the Internet is not “vetted” or fact-checked. Anyone can post anything online, and you may be making decisions based on information that’s unreliable or incorrect.
- Try not to jump to the worst scenario. As the study above indicates, this isn’t always easy to do, but remember that most serious conditions are very rare and require complex testing to diagnosis. It’s probably unlikely that the condition you’ve settled on that only affects one every 1000 people is the one that you have.
- Seek the advice of your doctor if you’re concerned enough about your symptoms to be certain of a serious diagnosis. It’s been said that the best antidote for anxiety is information. However, it’s the information from the expert who knows you and is looking at you specifically that’s going to do the most good.
- Use the Internet only to research your condition after you’ve been diagnosed. This way you can concentrate your energies on learning about what you do have instead of worrying about what you don’t. Keep in mind, however, that you will still be exposed to faulty information online and that you should take any health information or advice you read online with a proverbial “grain of salt.”
In the end, it’s best to think of health information on the Internet as what it is – a collection of informational and social “tools,” and not one for diagnosis. Your doctor is always going to be the best source for diagnosis and treatment, and if you’re concerned about the symptoms you or a loved one is experiencing, your doctor’s office will always be the best place to go.
Sources: HealthDay News; WebMD; Dr. Arthur Barsky; Dr. Christina Villarreal; Wikipedia; Discovery Health
Ph.D, with 20 years experience writing both creatively and in the fields of technical/science/health writing.