CyberChondria: Internet symptom is creating health issues for netizens

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New Delhi | Updated: November 26, 2018 6:44:00 AM

Internet symptom-checking is amplifying health problems, not helping people access accurate information

Those excessively worried about their health or perceiving illnesses when there are none were, till a few years ago, called hypochondriacs. (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)

The internet (read, chiefly Google) is fuelling a paranoia about health. Searches relating to off-chest pains, rashes and even acne have gone up by thousands of times over the last three years, and experts are worried this could be fuelling unnecessary worry and anxiety about health. In UK, the jurisdiction for which a research was commissioned by Perkbox Medical, search volumes for “how to know chest pains are serious” have risen by almost 8,800%. Searches for ‘sciatica’ and ‘IBS + treatment’ have risen 100,000 times since 2015. While, without doubt, everybody worries about their health and those with access to the internet often key in their symptoms online, frequent and intense searches could be debilitating and even damaging. It is fraught with the danger of self-diagnosis and treatment—as per a 2016 study, symptom-checkers trawling the internet got their diagnosis right on the first try just 34% of the time, while the corresponding rate for doctors was 72%—both of which will more likely go horribly wrong for individuals with no medical training than not.

Those excessively worried about their health or perceiving illnesses when there are none were, till a few years ago, called hypochondriacs. The internet is breeding another form of health anxiety which has been styled ‘cyberchondriasis’. A mushrooming of sites, the content in some of which is reviewed/produced by medical professionals, has led to over 35% respondents in a Pew Research Center survey saying that they had used the internet specifically to diagnose a medical condition by themselves. But, the fact is very few individuals without medical training can make a differential diagnosis, leading to most self-diagnosis being way off mark. Add to this confirmation biases regarding people’s worst suspicions, and most people end up thinking that they suffer from something much worse from what actually afflicts them. It gets a lot more complicated if the burden of having a particular problem is crushing and people start to believe that there is a higher chance of them actually suffering from that problem. It is time people understood “Googling” symptoms offers no cure; in fact, it could become a new disease by itself.

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