Cyberchondria: A Dangerous Trend in Self-Diagnosis
The Internet has granted us unprecedented access to information about all sorts of things, including common medical ailments. Earlier this year, Google revealed that roughly 1 percent of all its searches (that’s millions of searches) are symptom-related health inquiries. Sites like WebMD have made it easier than ever for people to self-diagnose ailments before visiting a physician. While it’s great that patients have access to these educational resources, many medical professionals and psychologists are becoming increasingly concerned about the negative consequences self-diagnosis could have on patient health as well.
The term “cyberchondria” was recently coined to describe the worry and anxiety that often accompany self-diagnoses based on online searches. We’ve all been there – searching for flu-like symptoms on WebMD one moment, and worrying that we might have leukemia the next. It can be easy to fear the worst, especially when it comes to our own health. But in reality, these self-diagnoses are rarely accurate.
In addition to instilling unfounded fear and anxiety in patients, cyberchondria can complicate medical treatments as well. When a patient comes to a doctor with a litany of perceived ailments, the doctor might feel obligated to perform risky, invasive diagnostic procedures as a precaution. The more procedures a patient undergoes, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong. When patients become convinced that they’re suffering from multiple ailments, treatments can become increasingly complex as well. Ultimately, this trend can increase the likelihood of medical errors and constitute a serious liability to patient health.
Search engines are valuable resources, but they must be used carefully and intelligently, especially when an inquiry pertains to a person’s health. In the future, legislation may require companies like Google and WebMD to adhere to the same ethical standards as traditional medical journals. For now, however, it’s up to patients to use their own discretion when searching for symptoms online.