Digital Diagnoses Create “Cyberchondriacs”
I once convinced myself that I was suffering from laundry detergent poisoning. After noticing that my tongue was unusually numb—a symptom that was probably more reflective of breath mint abuse than poisoning of any kind—I consulted the consistently reliable Internet and concluded that I had probably somehow transferred detergent from hand to mouth while doing laundry, consequently condemning myself to imminent death.
Reality eventually struck after I discovered my esophagus had remained intact, but not before I’d informed several friends of my suspected condition. How, they wondered, could a generally rational person armed with a search engine devolve so quickly into absurd bodily paranoia? Yet the success of a multitude of online symptom checkers suggests that I am not alone in my empowered but uninformed search for Internet answers; I am a member of a group known as “cyberchondriacs.” Though it pains me to admit it, taking medical advice away from the realm of trained professionals and putting it into the hands of legions of armchair doctors may not be the best idea. The decontextualized information offered by these sites can promote fear over education.
On the surface, online diagnostic tools do not necessarily seem bad. Often, the more knowledge a person has to make a decision, the better. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the occasional online query regarding flu symptoms or cold treatments, and many would argue that for minor complaints that don’t warrant a visit to the doctor, advice from the Internet is the next best thing. Others might praise the ability to seek out a second opinion or to obtain further information about an illness confirmed by a doctor.
The problem arises from the lack of context built into the “plug and chug” method of computer-based diagnosis of an array of symptoms. When I wake up in the morning with a sore throat and a stiff neck, I am only a few clicks on Webmd.com away from 26 diagnoses that range from plausible (strep throat) to terrifying (toxic shock syndrome, avian flu, and throat cancer). While in a doctor’s office a rapid strep test, some clinical experience, and a quick patient history (“Been around any sick birds lately?”) can cement a diagnosis in minutes, here on the Internet such certainty is impossible, and on many diagnostic search engines you need only one common symptom to be matched with a diagnosis. Though most people will recognize that a sore throat probably points to a cold over cancer, the deluge of information provokes unnecessary anxiety.
Another potential pitfall of online diagnoses is the overconfidence it instills in people who allow the results of a simple search to replace visits to a real doctor. As helpful as popular opinion may be when selecting an Indian restaurant or purchasing a car, you might not want to crowdsource your medical needs. A simple visit to any Yahoo answers query that regards a bodily function can demonstrate that, when you’re looking for expertise, you might want to go to a bona fide expert.
Though some of the fault may lie in the mindsets of individuals who experience unfounded worry in response to online results, a 2009 study found that “nearly nine in ten respondents reported at least one instance in which a Web search for basic medical symptoms led to their review of content on more serious illnesses.” Perhaps websites could cut down on this effect by requiring multiple symptoms of a certain illness to be entered before displaying its diagnosis. The infrequency of rare illnesses could also be stressed in their descriptions. As for me, while I continue to try to put my body’s minor pains into perspective, for the sake of my sanity and my social life, these symptom checkers are off-limits, no matter how much laundry detergent I suspect I’ve swallowed.