Are Cyberchondriacs the New and Improved Hypochondriacs?
You’ve got a cough, chills, even a fever, so you fire up your computer and search for your symptoms. Soon, an innocent search becomes the difference between life and death—it could be the flu, but it could also be a rare immune disorder, or so the internet says.
As medical resource websites have become more prevalent on the internet, more and more ordinary people have become cyberchondriacs, self-diagnosing their conditions long before they ever make it to the doctor’s office.
“Cyberchondria is kind of a colloquial term, its not the exact formal diagnosis we might use when we are talking about people having excessive concern about physical symptoms,” said Matthew W. Gallagher, Ph.D., co-director of the Trauma and Anxiety Clinic of Houston and assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Houston. “Cyberchondria refers to focusing on information on the internet and excessively looking to find information about what might explain or best describe symptoms you might be having, but don’t fully understand.”
Doctors warn that patients can quickly fall into a rabbit hole of worry.
“It can definitely be a strong source of anxiety and the more you look the more you might find,” Gallagher said. “If you start looking up, ‘oh I have unexplained aches and pains,’ that could just be that you are tired or it could be that it is a host of other conditions.”
Excessive worry can result in very expensive testing for the patient, doctors say.
“Many times when I see a patient who has looked up their symptoms, we are thinking the same thing and what they are concerned about, I am, too,” said Jeffrey Steinbauer, M.D., professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “Other times, what they are thinking about might be no. 39 on my list and very low probability in my mind, but I want to be sure to address it. And if it means expensive testing is involved to rule that out—that would not be paid for by insurance—I need to let them know that and we can rule it out.”
Steinbauer says overreacting to symptoms is nothing new.
“Before the internet, there were patients who had non-specific symptoms who would talk to their friends or neighbors or read an article in the newspaper and then be sure that whatever symptoms they had were reflective of that other condition,” he said. “The big difference is that in the past, people had what was called hypochondria—the abnormal anxiety about one’s health, especially with an unwarranted fear that one has a serious disease.”
But whether it’s cyberchondria or hypochondria that has brought the patient to his office, Steinbauer knows it is his job to help. He also believes the internet has helped him be a better doctor and has helped inform his patients.
“I think it is a wonderful benefit for patients because many of the patients I see who have looked online, very often their questions are much more focused,” he said. “They have done a lot of reading and thought about their symptoms.”
Steinbauer said that when he started practicing many years ago, doctors used paper records and little pink slips to record messages when patients called.
“I would call them back, they might not answer or the line was busy, and it just took a lot of time,” he said. “Now, with the secure patient portal, I can release and review test results, the patients can send me a message about how they are feeling and I can respond right when I see that message. It enhances the communication with patients and sometimes it saves them an office visit or even an emergency room visit.”