Welcome to the world of online medical sites and diagnostics — WebMD, Mayo Clinic, MedicineNet, take your pick. While it’s tempting to easily type in symptoms and research potential illnesses when feeling under the weather, I advocate that these sites do more harm than good and only propel worries further.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m prone to anxiety as it is when sick, so it’s not exactly mentally healthy to Google “headaches” and then proceed to read that I have a brain tumor. Or I’ll type in “back tightness,” where I’m led to a page that speaks of muscle cramping (okay, fair enough), but then look on to see the mention of tetanus. Oh, great. No thanks.
There’s even a term for it now: “cyberchondria.”
I’m not alone, though. Many people have relayed their apprehension with self-diagnosing as well. Fatal diseases or cancer tend to manifest in Internet lingo for (most likely) typical aches and pains. Maybe we should leave that foreboding news to the well-trained professionals in person.
Shana Lebowitz’s 2012 article brings the term ‘cyberchondria’ to light.
“61 percent of Americans turn to the Internet to answer questions about their health,” she said. “For many, the Internet has replaced other trustworthy sources of health information — by 2007, Americans said they had more faith in the Internet than in mass media or government health agencies.”
I’ve come to realize that online sources are not always competent — and therefore need to be viewed skeptically.
Dr. Kelli Harding is referenced in Lebowitz’s article, and as a psychiatrist who specializes in health anxiety, she regards cyberchondria as “excessive health anxiety generated by online searches.” However, cyberchondria is true to form when worrying becomes a serious interference in your life, impeding on work, relationships and overall functioning.
Ellen Langer, PhD, notes in Lebowitz’s article that since older individuals may not be ‘tech-savvy,’ (and “a little afraid of the computer”), online medical sources could be difficult for them to navigate. And, Langer says that 20 and 30 somethings are less vulnerable to Internet diagnostics since they’re accustomed to online gossip blogs and various comments that aren’t necessarily accurate.
On the contrary, Harding proposes that cyberchondria can reach the younger folks since many don’t have insurance or regular healthcare, therefore placing greater emphasis on Internet diagnoses.
However, despite all the potential problems associated with online health information, it might come down to how you conduct your searches. Harding notes that the Internet can be a source of secondary information or opinions after consulting with a doctor first (in the non-digital realm, of course).
“I’ve learned that you have to really get to know your body,” my friend, who has perused these sites, said. “Now that I’m older, I can better predict what I really have before even going to a doctor. Also, if something feels weird, new or different than before, I know I should go to the doctor a lot faster.”
My personal verdict is to stay away from these medical sites — as much as my willpower allows. There’s countless occasions where I’m a hop, skip and jump away from diagnosing myself online, but then I remember that I’ll probably be told I potentially have cancer, so there goes that decision.
For those especially prone to health anxiety, you may want to consider the consequences of Internet diagnostics, and if further online exploration is done after seeking out a professional opinion, maybe tread carefully. Very carefully.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Nov 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Suval, L. (2013). Cyberchondria: Do Medical Websites Hurt More Than They Help?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/11/25/cyberchondria-do-medical-websites-hurt-more-than-they-help/