The Age Of Cyberchondriacs: Can The Internet Replace Doctors?

Posted on May 29, 2013 in Health and Life, Sci-Tech

By Rhea Kumar:

Wikipedia defines a hypochondriac as someone `who is excessively preoccupied or worried about having a serious illness and who becomes unduly alarmed about any physical symptoms that is detected, no matter how minor the symptom may be’. But information technology and the internet age have spawned an entire new species of hypochondriacs: the cyberchondriacs.

CyberchondriacsWhat is the first thing cyberchondriacs do when they feel even slightly ill? Go to the doctor? Pull out some medicine? No! They rush to the computer, connect to the internet and Google their symptoms. An entire range of websites open up, offering possible diagnosis based on symptoms, suggested lines of treatment, shared experiences of other patients and much more : all for free. Various websites like Mayo Clinic and WebMD have become viable alternatives to doctors for the paranoid cyberchondriac. And really, who would want to sit for hours in waiting rooms and pay a fat fee for a fragile sheet of paper describing the causes and cures when the same information can be found instantly on the net for free?

In the fast paced lifestyle most of us have adopted today, these healthcare websites offer the twin benefits of affordability and accessibility. Unfortunately, reliability isn’t that easy to get on the internet. Type in headache on your search engine, and a range of possible causes open up, from something as innocent as a sinus infection or eye strain to something as serious as dengue, malaria or even brain tumour! Even the most ordinary and routine symptoms when researched extensively on the internet will lead to a frightening prognosis. The problem is that many conditions can present very similar symptoms and a hasty conclusion can be very misleading and sometimes dangerous. And this is where the over-active imagination of our cyberchondriacs takes over. A stomach-ache implies jaundice or typhoid, body rash implies chickenpox and a backache will mean malfunctioning kidneys. And in a matter of minutes, the patient is convinced that he or she has contracted the most serious illness possible as deeply ingrained paranoia eclipses logical thinking and analysis.

In most cases where people are sensible enough to visit a doctor after looking up their symptoms on the internet, they will have their worst fears shot down. A good doctor will prevent many of these cyberchondriacs from taking unnecessary or harmful drugs on the basis of a few obscure lines from a healthcare website. But those who are ambitious or foolish enough to take medicines or treatments they got off the net, without consulting a doctor, can get into a serious problem. To exemplify this point, researchers in the UK used keywords in Google to search advice for five common paediatric symptoms and evaluated the first 100 websites. It was found that 39% of websites gave accurate information (consistent with current UK recommendations), 11% provided inaccurate information and 49% did not provide pertinent advice. All government sites were accurate while news sites were accurate only 55% of the time. The internet doesn’t seem that great a substitute to a doctor after all.

This is not to say that healthcare websites are completely useless and must be shunned in totality. Post a confirmed diagnosis by a medical practitioner, these sites can be used for obtaining supplemental information on the disease and also check the effectiveness of the treatment being adopted. Often doctors will be too busy or detached to answer all the questions that a patient may have and this may leave the patient with a lingering sense of anxiety and confusion about his own condition. Additional information from the internet can help a person in focused questioning and meaningful interaction with their doctor.

Besides this, the internet helps people from diverse backgrounds connect on the basis of a common ailment and then share their experiences regarding symptoms, doctors, medicines, effectiveness of various treatments etc. This pool of information can become a significant resource for people and a great substitute for seeking alternative opinions from several doctors at a prohibitive cost. For life threatening diseases such as cancer, severe depression and other similar ailments that have a huge emotional and psychological impact on the patient, the internet is a great way to engage with patient communities and soliciting peer support. For example, `The Truth of It’ is a powerful series of films where 40 Canadians who suffered from cancer share their experiences and talk of how they battled the challenge. The series is available on YouTube and was hosted at Cancer View Canada, an online portal that connects cancer patients with caregivers and those who work in cancer control organizations across Canada. The films are emotionally inspiring and can help hundreds and thousands of patients who are struggling to cope with the disease and its devastating impact on the family. Often the mental outlook is critical in coping with such a disease, faith and a positive outlook can work wonders for a patient’s immunity and help him or her fight against the most severe odds. Similarly, in the case of rare diseases, the internet can help to build a powerful community support by establishing links with fellow sufferers from across the world, something that may otherwise be near impossible to do.

The internet is an infinite storehouse of medical information but the key lies in making judicious use of this information. Rather than paranoid cyberchondriacs, we must be smart netizens, exercise caution and tap the benefits of what can be a very valuable source of information on health and disease. It is extremely important to look at the source of information and how recently it has been updated. It is also helpful to check multiple websites for information on diseases to determine which ones are the most accurate and reliable; the first website that shows up on the search may not necessarily be the best. A website that appears informative and useful may actually be promoting a commercial enterprise engaged in the treatment or management of that disease: such websites cannot be expected to be impartial or completely accurate. Generally, government websites or those supported by respected medical affiliations are the best sources. Mayo Clinic, Web MD or Dr. Google may be reliable too, but they often give incorrect diagnosis. As for community forums and Yahoo answers, the further one stays from them, the better!

Without doubt, the Internet has fundamentally transformed the dynamics of the patient-doctor relationship by empowering hitherto passive patients with information and enabling them to play an increasingly active role in their own diagnosis and care. But as we all know, the internet is neither foolproof nor completely trustworthy. So for all you cyberchondriacs out there: the golden mantra is “the internet supplements real doctors; it does not supplant them”.