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What are the risks of cyberchondria?

One of the obvious benefits of technology and the Internet is that we have almost instant access to a virtually unlimited supply of knowledge and information. Whether we want to identify that strange migratory bird that showed up on our windowsill or look up an obscure piece of historical data, our smartphones, computers and tablets are there to help us get rid of our doubts.

When it comes to our health, however, there are serious consequences that can come with using the internet to diagnose a certain health-related issue. Doing a simple Google search for some symptoms that we are experiencing will most likely return dozens of search results pointing us in different directions. Whereas medical professionals regularly spend over a decade studying medicine, anatomy and everything in between to determine the origin of our health problems, the information we find on the internet can lead to a self-diagnosis that might be dangerously incorrect. Misdiagnosing a health problem is dangerous for a number of reasons, and cyberchondria is just one of the possible negative effects.

What is Cyberchondria?

A recent report by the UK Digital Health Report found that one in every four people in the UK use the internet to self-diagnose medical conditions that they are experiencing. While one possibility is that people could misidentify a potentially dangerous or life-threatening underlying condition by only treating the symptoms, there are also mental health issues associated with using the internet to identify health problems.

A study by Psychology Today found that many people who are experiencing psychiatric issues or mental health problems might simply consider the psychological syndromes while never looking into possible causes. For example, it is well-known that panic disorders are often symptoms of thyroid problems or irregular heartbeat. However, medical professionals are often the only ones able to diagnose the underlying issue correctly.

Furthermore, people who use the internet to self-diagnose supposed health conditions might also suffer from a condition known as cyberchondria. This condition is characterised by people who compulsively search the internet for information on both real and/or imagined symptoms of some health condition.

Cyberchondria can negatively affect your mental health, leading to anxiety-related issues that are often unfounded. For example, a person who notices a skin discolouration on their face might come to the irrational conclusion that they are suffering from melanoma, a type of skin cancer. This anxiety can negatively affect a person's health leading to serious medical problems when the skin discolouration was in fact nothing to worry about.

The Risks of Self-Diagnosis

A person who casually searches the internet looking for information on a potential cause for the back pain they are experiencing is not necessarily suffering from cyberchondria. Rather, cyberchondria refers to the anxiety-amplifying effects of compulsive online health-related searches. This mental health condition is considered to be an abnormal behavioural pattern and emotional state, and often leads to incorrect self-diagnosis, along with subsequent economic problems. In fact, a study by the National Institute for Health Research finds that the NHS could save upwards of £420 m a year by offering treatment for the anxiety that accompanies cyberchondria.

Fortunately, there are several websites today that are administered by medical professionals who offer useful and helpful online advice. Instead of reading through online forums where anybody can voice an opinion, these websites offer useful information grounded in medical technology and study. Some websites provide online tools to check your symptoms. These symptom checkers generally ask you to fill out a questionnaire about your symptoms and then use computer generated algorithms to come up with the most likely health problems related to those symptoms.

A study by the British Medical Journal found that algorithms used in these symptom checkers provided the correct diagnosis first in 34% of cases, though important deficits were detected in triage and diagnosis. Thus, people who rely on symptom checkers should always refer to a medical professional to corroborate the diagnosis they are given.

How to Use the Internet Correctly for Health Issues

Gathering information on the internet can be empowering for people suffering from a certain health condition. When using the internet to research health-related issues, make sure you are using reputable websites that are run and administered by medical professionals. The NHS A-Z Conditions and Treatments website is a great place to start your research. If you are worried about a symptom you are experiencing, you can call NHS 111 or visit their website. They ask you a series of questions about your symptoms and determine whether you need to speak to a doctor, seek emergency attention, or treat the condition at home.

Other websites have credentialed doctors who are affiliated with the site, such as Prescription Doctor, that can issue prescriptions and provide confidential medical advice. While we cannot diagnose your condition, we can provide treatments for your previously diagnoses condition. You should always stay away from peer websites or online forums where non-medical professionals voice their opinions and offer diagnosis.

While easy access to online information can certainly lead to cyberchondria and misdiagnosis, it can also be helpful when used correctly and responsibly. If you are unsure about any symptom you are experiencing, always contact your GP.

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