In America alone, 160 million people regularly seek health information online. Of these, a significant percentage could be classified as cyberchondriacs, or those who conduct medical information searches more than 5 times each month and diagnose themselves with serious illnesses rather than consulting a doctor.
A survey of Web users who searched for medical information online found that nearly 90% had sought information on more serious conditions because those conditions had popped up in response to symptom searches. This indicates the power of the Web to escalate medical anxieties.
Cyberchondriacs Reject Benign Diagnoses in Favour of Deadly Illnesses
Hypochondria has traditionally affected 1%-5% of the general population, but medical students often succumb to a particular type of hypochondria known as Medical Students’ Disease because their studies expose them to lists of symptoms for a variety of serious diseases, increasing the likelihood that they will wrongly self-diagnose a serious condition. Now, with medical information widely available on the Internet, everyone has the opportunity to develop this particular form of hypochondria.
Like hypochondriacs, cyberchondriacs reject more likely non-disease explanations for symptoms, instead zeroing in on scarier causes. For example, a cyberchondriac seeking information about ankle swelling is inclined to ignore explanations such as minor injury or poorly fitting clothing. He finds a serious condition whose symptoms include ankle swelling and notes that he has experienced other symptoms of that condition, such as fatigue, while failing to take into account that practically everyone experiences fatigue from time to time. Similarly, someone suffering a headache might ignore causes such as caffeine withdrawal or tension and zero in on brain tumour. Chest pain, indigestion, anxiety, and heartburn are likewise ignored in favour of heart attack.
The cyberchondriac attributes symptoms to serious, life-threatening diseases rather than more benign, simple causes. While a medical expert is often able to rule out more serious conditions based on the quality of a particular symptom along with the patient’s age, genetic background, pre-existing medical conditions, travel history, and other factors, the non-expert cannot. And because causes of symptoms aren’t ranked by likelihood, serious problems such as brain tumour appear alongside more common causes such as tension and caffeine withdrawal.
To make matters worse, the most popular searches – those for serious medical conditions – get bumped to the top of the search results as escalation of medical anxiety causes searchers to seek information on these particular conditions. As people tend to click first on the top search page results, perception of risk and prevalence for more serious conditions may be artificially inflated, providing an unrealistic impression of the likelihood of succumbing to such diseases.
English logician and Franciscan friar William Ockham (1295-1349) developed the principle now widely known as Ockham’s Razor, which is usually summarized as follows: “Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred.” In other words: “If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.” This means that unless there is a good reason to suspect a serious condition (genetic predisposition, severe symptoms, etc.), the cause is most often benign, particularly when it comes to symptoms that most people experience from time to time as a result of poor sleep, anxiety, minor injuries, and other day-to-day problems.
Seeking Medical Information on the Web Can Be Beneficial
Being well-informed about medical and general health issues increases the likelihood of seeking and receiving effective medical care and engaging in health-protective behaviours. This is one of the reasons why education is a better predictor of health and longevity than income, genetics, or many other factors associated with health and lifespan.
Although cyberchondria causes unnecessary suffering due to the fear it induces, seeking medical information online can also be a positive thing. Those who access information on prevention and effective management of illness from valid, reliable, current sources can improve their overall health and reduce their risk of disease.
There Are Good Sources of Medical Information Online
Currently, three-quarters of all those who regularly seek medical information online do not evaluate the validity or check the creation dates of sources. Such unexamined sources may contain information that is completely wrong or lack updates regarding more recent research findings that contradict prior findings. In addition, question-and-answer sites frequently provide erroneous medical information and websites selling unproven supplements and other products often make false medical claims to increase sales. This is a serious problem, given that the medical information people access affects the decisions they make regarding medical care and day-to-day lifestyle choices.
Those seeking medical information online should visit websites that are associated with established, credible medical centers, governments, and institutes or read online medical journals. Some good sources include:
- The National Institutes of Health
- Health Canada
- The Merck Manuals
- MedlinePlus (The United States National Library of Medicine)
- The Mayo Clinic
When in Doubt, Consult a Medical Practitioner
Web searching is no substitute for the care of a qualified medical practitioner. Cyberchondriacs self-diagnose, but even if they are correct, they don’t receive proper care and treatment without seeing a doctor.
Those who have good reason to suspect that they suffer from serious medical conditions should visit or at least call a physician. A doctor can potentially eliminate such fears by ruling out the likelihood of a suspected condition, or, if a condition is diagnosed, begin treatment immediately to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
- Raw, J., & Horan, M.A. (2007). “Hoof Beats.” Age and Ageing, 18(1). Oxford University Press.
- Snyderman, N.L., MD. (2008). Medical Myths That Can Kill You and the 101 Truths That Will Save, Extend, and Improve Your Life. New York: Crown Publishers.
- White, R.W., & Horvitz, E. (2008). Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Research.