In the old days, if you had a symptom that didn’t go away, you’d call your doctor. Today, many people are likely to consult “Dr. Google” to self-diagnose instead. And when this behavior is taken to extremes, it’s sometimes called cyberchondria.
Encountering conflicting health information online can be anxiety-provoking, says psychiatrist Jonathan S. Adelstein, MD, of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
“Many symptoms can indicate the presence of various illnesses that range in severity,” Adelstein says. “If a patient Googles ‘cough,’ they may return illnesses ranging from the common cold to lung cancer.”
Without more specific information from a physician, patients may not understand how to assess their symptoms. “Accordingly, they may become increasingly anxious, fixated, perseverative [persisting in a behavior even after it stops being effective], even obsessional about their perceived diagnosis,” Adelstein says.
A 2013 Pew Research Center report noted that 72 percent of internet users said they had looked online for health-related information within the past year. The same report said that 35 percent of adults in the U.S. have used the internet to self-diagnose or diagnose someone else.
“Where this becomes concerning is when it becomes obsessive: when a patient cannot stop thinking about it, cannot stop doing it (despite wanting to), may be sacrificing time at work or time with family to search online, may constantly be researching potential treatments or reading articles about an illness they may not even have, or perhaps even trying to find medications or other treatments for this perceived illness,” Adelstein says.
Obsessional fears and worries might indicate an illness such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), he says.
It is also concerning if a person is having a hard time hearing and understanding what their physician is trying to tell them because they are so convinced of what was found online.
“If you’re at all concerned about your symptoms, call your doctor. Sometimes just even making that call will help you feel better,” Adelstein notes.
Doing some health research using reputable, evidence-based sources is essential, Adelstein says, since doctor appointments keep getting shorter and doctors don’t have time to explain everything. “But any lingering questions or concerns should be discussed with your doctor to make sure you understand all the nuances.”
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.