Pearls and perils of cyberchondria
Nitin K Sethi, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
New York-Presbyterian Hospital
Weill Cornell Medical Center
New York, NY 10065
Cyberchondria is a relatively new term used at times to describe the behavior of some individuals who use the Internet to gather information about health or a disease which they feel they may have based on their signs and symptoms. The Internet search results leads to an unfounded concern, preoccupation and worry about their health status.
The term is derived from the more commonly used term hypochondria. Hypochondriasis is excessive preoccupation or concern about having a serious often incurable illness.
Nowadays more and more people are turning to the Internet for health and disease related information. In my practice I frequently come across patients who have already “Googled” their diagnosis even before they come to see me. Some even “Google” their MRI results.
Cyberchondria can have its pearls as well as its perils. Let us start with the pearls first. No one doubts the power of the Internet. It has and continues to revolutionize the way medicine is practiced. There is an abundance of information on the Internet about common and even esoteric neurological conditions. All one has to do is type the relevant key words into a popular search engine like Google and low and behold, Dr. Google starts churning out answers-pages and pages of it. The Internet houses many blogs and sites exclusively devoted to a particular condition. Some of these sites are run by reputable organizations like American Academy of Neurology (www.aan.com) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov). Thus sitting in the comfort of one’s home, useful and credible information can be readily accessed. Is there any new treatment for multiple sclerosis or ALS? If yes, where is it been offered? Where are the best doctors in NYC? Which is the nearest hospital for acute stroke care? Are there any caregiver organizations for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease? Pretty much whatever you type in, Dr. Google shall have an answer.
But in this pearl itself, are the perils of the Internet. There are ample sites where in the information content is not standardized. These include blogs run by patients themselves, some by care-givers and yet others by pharmaceutical companies or companies which manufacture medical equipment. The abundance of information leads to many falling prey to cyberchondria. Let us take an example. Your doctor gets a MRI scan done because you have headaches. The MRI report reads “non-specific white matter hyperintensities are seen. These have been noted in ischemic, inflammatory and demyelinating conditions like multiple sclerosis. Clinical correlation is advised.” Now you get this report in front of you and of course what do you do? You go to the Internet and page Dr. Google for help. In you type “white matter lesions, headache and multiple sclerosis” Dr. Google hums for a nanosecond and churns out pages and pages which talk about multiple sclerosis, white matter lesions on MRI and at times headache.
THERE THE GROUND HAS BEEN SET FOR CYBERCHONDRIA!!! You are now convinced you have multiple sclerosis and spend another couple of hours in cyberspace getting worried, confused and finally panicky.
It is indeed easy to get cyberchondria. The Internet is a powerful tool. By all means use it to get health and disease related information. It is way easier than going to a library and searching for it there. BUT THE CATCH IS TO USE IT WISELY!!! If rightly used it is a slave working tirelessly on our behalf. Random searches with random key words about signs and symptoms of a disease you feel you have, risk leading to cyberchondria giving you many sleepless nights and needless worry.