A Cure for Cyberchondria

Do you turn to "Dr. Google" before consulting your healthcare provider?

Nervous woman looking at her computer

Medical journals report that patients these days are likely to arrive at the doctor's office already having self-diagnosed their symptoms — whether correctly, or, more likely, incorrectly.

What's behind this trend? In the old days, patients might discuss symptoms with their friends ("My Aunt Martha had a cough like that and it turned out she had pneumonia"). Maybe they'd page through a medical dictionary or symptom guide. But mostly, they'd depend on their doctor for a diagnosis.

Then came the internet. A study performed by Microsoft Corporation reported that 80 percent of American adults now search for healthcare information online. Patients might go directly to a legitimate health information site as they research a cough, rash or stomach ache. More often, they simply keyboard a description of their symptoms into a search engine and randomly diagnose themselves with information they might find anywhere — on a reputable health information site, or on Pinterest, in a Facebook meme, on a blog run by a celebrity with zero medical training, or in the reader comments section of a website.

Dr. Guido Zuccon of Australia's Queensland University of Technology confirmed that these days, "People commonly turn to 'Dr. Google' to self-diagnose illnesses or ailments." To learn more, Zuccon conducted a study on how people searched for health information online. Study participants were shown photos of people with visible diseases, and then tried to find information about symptoms. The results varied widely. For example, a photo of a person with jaundice inspired searchers to use terms ranging from "yellow eyes," "eye illness" and "white part of the eye turned green." Consequently, their search results weren't very helpful.

Said Zuccon, "Because on average only three of the first 10 results were highly useful, people either kept searching or they got the wrong advice, which can be potentially harmful." In addition, he cautioned, people may experience "cyberchondria" — unfounded concern that can snowball into anxiety. Explained Zuccon, "If you didn't get a clear diagnosis after one search, you would likely be tempted to keep searching. So if you had searched for the symptoms of something like a bad head cold, you could end up thinking you had something far more serious, like an issue with the brain."

The Microsoft study explains that because stories and news items about exotic and serious illnesses are more interesting to readers than, say, a treatise on the common cold, these unusual medical conditions might therefore be overrepresented in search results. (Fun fact: STAT recently listed the actual top 20 health conditions users search for.) Ironically, a user might fear a scary diagnosis so much that they avoid going to the doctor, missing out on treatment that could help. Their memory problem could be caused not by Alzheimer's disease, but by the effects of a medication — an easily corrected problem.

Search engine companies are trying to address the problem. The Microsoft study authors reported that while 80 percent of American adults search for healthcare information online, only one-fourth of those searchers pay attention to whether their search has turned up reputable, up-to-date information. The study authors emphasize that internet searches can help people better understand their health conditions — but only in tandem with advice from their doctor. Google reports that one of every 100 searches is for a health symptom. The company made changes in 2016 to improve symptom search; in the mobile app, a curated list of possible conditions appears before the other search results (but, no surprise, below the paid ads).

Cyberchondria is only part of the problem with online health information searches. Even if we know what ails us, it's easy to be lured to websites offering useless or downright dangerous health advice. Some of these folks are well-meaning. They may have a sincere belief in their health theories or products. In reader comments sections, a person might share information about a treatment that worked for them — which might be dangerously wrong for other readers.

Then there are the celebrity spokesmodels, bloggers making sensational health claims to get more clicks, companies making big bucks by selling useless "cures," or people with crackpot theories. With a glitzy website and good social media, their information spreads around social media faster than the latest cat video. Be skeptical of headlines like "Your doctor will have to sell his Mercedes if patients find out about this miracle cure" … "Medical science can't explain …" "The simple herb that has Big Pharma in a panic" or "Six secrets dermatologists don't want you to know …"

So if you do decide to investigate your health conditions online, take care that the sites you visit are reputable. Ask your doctor to recommend some good online resources. The doctor may not have to look far: In place of a wall of pamphlets in the waiting room, more health practices have their own health information portals these days.

Meanwhile, here are some good sources of health information to bookmark:

The National Institutes of Health, the nation's medical research agency, offers up-to-date health information for consumers through its 27 centers and institutes, including the National Institute on Aging, the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and more.

Other useful government sites include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus.gov.

Many medical professional organizations offer patient portals with reliable information. Those include the American Geriatrics Society's HealthinAging.org, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ OrthoInfo.org, the American Academy of Ophthalmology's EyeSmart, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Reputable health foundations also offer good patient information, among them the Alzheimer's Association, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Lung Association.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.