Searching too much about diseases on the internet can actually be a health risk, as this information can never be replaced by that provided by healthcare professionals.
Medical Advisor: Jaime Adams Dueñas, Psychiatrist, practitioner at Coomeva Private Healthcare.
Nobody likes to get sick. Fearing the possibility of getting sick is, to a certain extent, natural. We are all familiar with those people, however, who take any potential ailment they might face as a serious concern and every symptom they have makes them think they have a grave disease. People who have these concerns have a name: hypochondriacs.
The disorder, hypochondria, is an obsession that drives people to seek out – by all means possible – diagnoses that prove the suspicions of an illness, despite there being evidence that it does not exist. With modern technology, this disorder has found a way to get worse. It’s called “cyberchondria” and it is similar to hypochondria, but involves cyberspace.
As psychiatrist Jaime Adams Dueñas explains, “The internet has become the go-to place when it comes to researching something, and it seems that nobody can escape the temptation to learn about their health there. With hypochondriacs, this obsessive tendency to look for answers on the internet about diseases that are either imagined or feared makes this disorder worse.”
The reason why this disorder becomes worse when the internet is involved, is that the more information that is gathered, the more anxiety this causes. While studies about cyberchondria are just beginning, international research centers such as Pew Internet Research revealed that in 2006, 10% of those that researched diseases on the internet became more anxious as a result.
“The risk of this person having obsessive compulsive disorder or having a panic attack becomes greater. When this happens, cognitive behavioral therapy must be used to treat the patient,” Adams explains.
After getting a diagnosis, going online to research additional information isn’t forbidden; that is what technology is for. It is important, however, to be careful the information does not contradict what has been recommended to you.
“The internet can help clarify any questions you may have about taking medications and further explain symptoms of the disease that were not addressed with the doctor. But the patient-doctor visit can never be replaced with that type of information,” he states. If you do decide to look online to complement the information you received at your appointment, be sure to use reliable web pages.
According to our psychiatrist, the practice of looking up healthcare information on search engines is considered normal when it is done once a week or after you have seen your physician.
In addition to searching online in moderation to avoid cyberchondria, it is important to understand that the symptoms of a condition vary from one person to the next, and not all people react the same. Following these recommendations helps build the trust in medicine that has been proven, and together with a positive attitude in addressing the disease, this helps contribute to the best possible recovery.
Consider the side effects
The other risk of cyberchondria is that it also contributes to self-medication, a very risky health practice.
“After they surf the web, people often find medicines to alleviate their symptoms or illnesses and begin to take them without considering the side effects they may have on their body. It is important to insist that people only consume those medications that have been prescribed by their doctor,” says Adams.
Similarly, it is also helpful to differentiate between general and scientific information when you do go to the virtual world to do additional research.
While general information can serve as a guideline for the patient to monitor their body or to gather to discuss later with their healthcare professional, it does not apply to all people and is not based on scientific evidence. Scientific information is more reliable, as it consists of data that is gathered in specialized medical websites and is endorsed by health entities or more recognized medical associations.
Some of the most reliable medical websites include:
- World Health Organization
- Colombian Heart Foundation
- Medical organizations that provide information about a pathology or disease.