Do you suffer from whatever symptom you happen to come across on a tweet? Do you think you have caught whatever disease du jour is the lead on Google News? Does the word “outbreak” cause you to immediately run a search engine query? Then you might just be a cyberchondriac.
The Internet has made it incredibly easy for people to look up symptoms, take assessment tests, read about what “might be” or convince themselves they must have some horrible illness or condition because their myriad manifestations fit into one set or criteria or another. This is what has been termed Cyberchondria:
the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomology based on review of search results and literature online
I admit, I do it too. As a health writer, I’m often temporarily convinced I have whatever disease or condition I’m currently writing about – until the next article comes along. However, somewhere in the back of my mind I know it’s probably untrue. Just because I have a few common symptoms – headaches, or a sore back, for example – doesn’t mean I have migraines, or a brain tumor, or a fill in the blank here. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to easily research many topics, including signs, symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments of hundreds of diseases, but the general nature of the web means that many people are misled into thinking that minor symptoms are really major problems.
WebMD even has an animated symptom checker – just click on where it hurts and you will get several possibilities back in seconds about what “it” might be. EasyDiagnosis puts a full page disclaimer on it’s site that ensures visitors know it’s not a physician substitute – but packages common signs and symptoms into neat little condition categories.
A year-old site called HealthBase takes a slightly different tack. It conducts what it calls “smart searches” that scour highly reputable sites such as the NIH or CDC to find treatments, causes, and complications of health conditions, as well as the pros and cons of various drugs, foods, and chemicals used in care. This site is one of the better ones I’ve come across – it cuts through a lot of useless advertising and sidebar information to search major health databases like PubMed. These are the same ones I might search when writing a journal article.
Major search engines such as Google or Bing are not designed to do more than spit back data on where you can find health information. They do not discern or judge whether it is accurate, reliable, or a scam. One clue might be to see whether a site is sponsored, or trying to sell something – the information is bound to be skewed. The old adage of “don’t believe everything you see on TV” is just as true in cyberspace – don’t believe everything you read on the web. As the website WrongDiagnosis observed, online medical diagnoses have several pitfalls, including lack of visual feedback by a trained professional and lack of a physical examination.
I’m not saying you should avoid doing any research. What I do advise (as a writer/researcher, not a medical professional) is to know where you are going. It’s simple to find lists of highly credible sites through gateway pages such as Healthfinder.gov – which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other reliable sites include those from major research institutions, such as the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, or Rockefeller University. The information provided from these types of sites is evidence-based, proven, and current. And they’re not trying to sell you anything.
Knowledge is a good thing. If you think something might be wrong, it can be wise to get some preliminary information. But unless you hold an MD yourself, it’s also very wise to visit your doctor. Tell him or her what you have learned or suspect; by all means go look up stuff after a clinical exam. Just don’t jump to conclusions. After all, a headache might just only be…. a headache.