Surge in people using the internet to self-diagnose

Turning to the internet for self-diagnosis has become increasingly common in the last few years, causing a spike in cases of online hypochondria.

Experts are warning against this trend, which has been dubbed cyberchondria, and have urged people to visit their GPs with any concerns over their health.

According to a recent study, cyberchondria may actually be more harmful than its traditional counterpart, mainly due to the large volume of questionable material available on the web.

The research, carried out by Dr Thomas Fergus of Baylor University in Texas, found that doubts about your health, unfounded or not, can cause unnecessary worry and stress about hospital bills, disability, and job loss. In some cases, these worries can even escalate into obsession.

The findings were published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking.

Dr Fergus studied 512 healthy people with an average age of 33 to analyse how online health searches affected their anxiety.

He said: “The more you search, the more you consider the possibilities. If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that is the cause of the bump on my head.”

Dr Fergus concluded that while anxiety over your health is not a new phenomenon, medical information obtained on the web may be more disturbing than those contained in medical manuals.

He said: “When you look at a medical book, you might not see all the possibilities at once, but online you are presented with so many.”

The Irish College of General Practitioners sees cyberchondria and self-diagnosis as a serious concern in relation to patient safety and health.

Spokesperson Dr Darach Ó Ciardha said while the internet can be a useful source of information, it’s no substitute for the support offered by your GP.

He said: “Attending a GP provides a very important human and expert support for patients during challenging and frightening periods in their lives.”

“While the internet is useful for patients looking to find out information about specific illnesses, once diagnosed, and linking in with peer support groups, the information available is so diverse that it can be difficult for patients to find material that is truly relevant to them.”

Seven signs you’re a cyberchondriac

* You check health information websites to get relief from anxiety;

* You always focus on the worst case scenario;

* You ‘symptom surf’ for vague and generic symptoms;

* You bookmark and favourite medical searches;

* The time you spend checking health symptoms online is interfering with your life;

* You seek reassurance from people in social networks or chat rooms;

* You see your doctor more than your friends.

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