New Delhi, February 5, 2021: Having a headache or a sore throat or indigestion, how many times have you turned to the internet to get a diagnosis? Do you have the habit of searching the internet at the first sign of a niggle? Well, you might be suffering from cyberchondria. The term was coined by a British newspaper in the early 2000s as a play on the word hypochondria. Like hypochondria, cyberchondria refers to a person’s anxiety about their health that is created or exacerbated by using the internet to search for medical information.
The digital revolution has changed many aspects of our lives, especially in the way we source health-related information, as it is easily and freely available. In the earlier times, 1 out of 10 patients used to seek health information on the internet, but today, that number has changed to 9 out of 10 people seeking health information online before visiting a doctor. Many even believe that the internet has all the answers to their health problems. Ironic indeed! But that is how people surf the world of web, in pursuit of a definite health solution or a diagnosis.
A recent Google trend report on how Indians surfed the web in the past year has some shocking revelation. According to Google trends, “How to make coronavirus vaccine at home? And how to improve immunity against COVID?” were some of the top trending searches on the internet in India, followed by questions around food to eat to build immunity, plasma therapy, COVID symptoms, home remedies for COVID, etc. This indicated that people are all willing to take a chance on self-treatment and self-diagnosis. But is this worth the shot?
RISK OF MISDIAGNOSIS, OVER-DIAGNOSIS OR UNDER-DIAGNOSIS: More often than not, self-diagnosis on the internet always points towards something more frightening. It can lead to misdiagnosis or over-diagnosis. For example, if you search for ‘headache’, you are likely to find around 20 results showing the different interpretation of headaches, each scarier than the other. There are chances that your headache may be something small, but the internet search shows signs of a cancerous tumour or some other neurological problem. In the bargain, you will freak out, and this may cause a high level of stress. Moreover, self-medication involves pharmacological risks that can result in severe adverse reactions. Sometimes, you would even under-diagnose yourself, which could have a severe long-term impact on the quality of life or worse, death.
SYMPTOMS OF A CYBERCHONDRIAC: According to experts, lately, cyberchondria is becoming a growing problem as people resort to finding out what the internet has to say about their health and wellbeing. People having cyberchondria tend to misinterpret regular bodily changes and minor physical symptoms as signs of severe illness or disease. For many people living with health anxiety, fear can become so severe that it interferes with work and relationships.
SEEKING HELP FROM A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL IS THE RIGHT WAY: Many times, we come across patients with a whole list of questions about their symptoms and medical condition. Some patients come with a diagnosis they have already arrived at by using the internet. And some, come with lab reports and medical investigations, also a result of online searching. Of course, we would call them empowered patients, but quite often, these people display a lack of trust in the health advice offered by doctors. We must understand that no technology or internet search can completely replace professional medical help. By doing so, you are inadvertently putting yourself at risk of anxiety and incorrect diagnosis and will spend more money on healthcare.
‘SEARCH IT’ THE RIGHT WAY: Using search engines to gain knowledge about health topics is not wrong but checking the source of information is very important. Information on these websites and apps should be viewed very cautiously as they don’t know your medical history or actual symptoms. The suggestions they make are not made by medical practitioners but are actually key-word based.
Remember, the internet is just a channel through which you can gain information, but the actual empowerment comes when you use that information wisely and not rashly.
(The article has been authored by Dr Sanjay Shah, General Physician & Dr Pradip Shah, General Physician, Fortis Hospital, Mulund.)