Nagging headache for 2 days…you could go to the doctor’s office. Or, you can consult Dr. Google since it’s faster, cheaper and more convenient, right? However, the first thing that pops up on your Google search is brain tumor! Although a headache is more likely caused by stress, fatigue or eyestrain, search engines have a tendency to list the most serious ailments at the beginning of the search results. This not only leads to people misdiagnosing themselves, it also leads to more anxiety than before a user ever logged on.
Psychologists have coined the term “cyberchondria” for this obsession over investigating symptoms (real or imagined) on the Internet. It is the online counterpart to hypochondria. Current studies show that 80 percent of women investigate wellness information online and 60 percent of those inquests are specifically to diagnose a medical condition. The average woman sees a doctor three times a year but spends an hour weekly – that’s 52 hours a year – on the internet investigating health information. However, when people Google their symptoms, diagnosis or treatment, there are millions of medical sites spewing out information that is confusing and oftentimes downright wrong. 90 percent of Wikipedia articles representing the 10 most common medical conditions contain errors. According to the Pew Research Center, only half of those folks who use the internet for self-diagnosis ever follow up with their doctor.
Is cyberchondria helping you or hurting you? Given the long wait times for seeing a physician, it is understandable that people want to investigate on their own and the internet is a good introduction. However, some people become convinced they have an illness they have self-diagnosed online and then treat themselves. These treatments can be costly and can prolong an accurate diagnosis. Alternatively, other folks are in denial and don’t want to visit their doctor for fear of an official diagnosis. This can lead to a delay of care which can have serious long term consequences.
Due to the erroneous and sometimes dangerous information online, the safest course of action would be to schedule an appointment with your doc. The data from your online search can be the starting point of a conversation about your symptoms and your concerns. The physician then has the opportunity to either confirm or disprove the diagnosis by performing a proper evaluation. This can lead to an amelioration of symptoms and relief at reaching an answer together. However, the first step is following up with your doctor and being honest with them.
Finally, only Google on trusted sites for medical information. Sites ending in “ .gov” are sponsored by the federal government, sites ending in “ .edu” are run by medical schools and universities and sites ending in “ .org” are maintained by not-for-profit organizations. Additionally, scientific and medical journal websites are reliable sources for information.
The moral of the story is to Google with care.