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Are you a cyberchondriac?

We explore the various risks associated with searching your symptoms online.

Are you a cyberchondriac? Searching for health infomation online

According to the latest data from the Medibank Better Health Index, Aussies under 50 are spending on average 24 hours a week online — more than double what we were 8 years ago.

We know that a lot of this ‘online time’ is being spent searching for health information. In fact, one survey found looking up health information to be the third most popular online activity, following email and using a search engine, with most of us searching symptoms, conditions and diseases, as well as investigating various treatment options when trawling the net for answers.

What’s more, ‘Googling your symptoms’ has become so popular that even Google has introduced its very own symptom checker tool in the US. The tool acts as an add-on feature to the company’s search function — a ‘conditions’ panel which appears when a user types their symptoms into the search bar. The tool uses a variety of sources to collate a list of health conditions which match the symptoms being described.

With this growing thirst for health information, and the myriad of health advice now available at our fingertips, we’re seeing an emergence of a brand new phenomenon — ‘cyberchondria’.

The rise of cyberchondria

Cyberchondria is a form of hypochondria which describes anxiety brought on by excessively researching symptoms online for self-diagnosis.

We’re all guilty of Googling symptoms from time to time, whether it’s a skin complaint or a niggling cough. And we may think a quick online search will save us time and money. But recent studies suggest that self-diagnosis via symptom checker sites could be doing us more harm than good.

Putting your health in the hands of the Internet

It should come as no surprise that symptom checker sites can be inconsistent and even incorrect with their diagnoses. In fact, Harvard Medical School proved this in a recent study, which tested 43 conditions across 23 symptom checker sites. What they found was that merely a third came back with the correct diagnosis, and only half included the right diagnosis in their top 3 suggestions.

While some people believe symptom checker sites are a great way to cut back on unnecessary doctor visits, the study also found two thirds of those who received a diagnosis through these sites still sought confirmation from their GP, perhaps implying their symptoms persisted due to an incorrect diagnosis and treatment.

And for the one third who did trust their digital diagnosis, you’d want to be sure it was correct — particularly for potentially life threatening symptoms such as chest pain — where there’s no room for error or misdiagnosis.

This is a concern shared amongst medical professionals, as some patients with serious health issues are not always being directed to seek urgent medical attention.

Commenting on the topic, Medibank Chief Medical Officer Dr Linda Swan, said that while we all need to be actively engaged in managing our health, it’s important to be aware of the risks.

“There is some really good health information available online but not all sources are high quality or reliable. You need to make sure you are visiting a trustworthy site, written by an appropriately qualified health professional or a recognised government authority. You also need to be careful that you aren’t misinterpreting information, or just considering the worse possible diagnosis.

The best step is to go to your GP with any information and concerns you have. Then together you can discuss your symptoms and health needs and decide on the best course of treatment.”

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