Cyberchondria–don’t ask Dr. Google–see a doctor!

Pacommentary_cyberchondria snip 2tients have greater access to information today than they ever have before in history. That can be a great thing or it can exacerbate an already tense situation. More often than not it’s the latter–patients come in with a stack of internet research, convinced they have some rare and horrible disease, and it’s up to you to talk them down. This takes trust away from medical providers, causes visits to be longer, and leads to unnecessary tests and office visits. Rarely does it provide a better outcome for the patient.

So what should medical providers do when confronted with a stack of internet research? The best you can hope to do is educate your patients about a better way to use the information at their disposal.

First, when you Google your symptoms you’re likely to fall into a marketer’s trap trying to sell you a miracle cure that doesn’t really work. Second, it’s much more productive to Google your diagnosis once you have it than it is to Google your symptoms to try to figure out what’s ailing you. And third, Googling your symptoms every time you have a sniffle or an ache is likely to cause you to think you have ailments you don’t actually have–a condition that is now being called Cyberchondria.

Googling symptoms can lead patients astray in many different ways. Marketers know how to use keywords to bring their search results to the top of the list in order to sell their miracle cure. Google can also autofill searches, which can make patients wonder whether they have something even worse that they hadn’t initially been thinking about.

Google was used a few years ago to try to track flu outbreaks, but it was discovered the search engine was overestimating flu trends by at least 50 percent. The information presented to patients on many of the web sites out there has also been found to be false or misleading–it’s not information that has been vetted by a medical professional.

It’s important to communicate to patients that doing their own research is much more valuable after they have received a diagnosis. But what’s more important than that is to teach them how to determine whether they sources they are using have been reviewed by medical professionals or otherwise contain legitimate information.

When patients Google their symptoms it can lead to a wide range of problems. Hypochondriac patients spend around $20 billion a year on unnecessary tests and medications. Symptom checkers can convince even the most reasonable patient they have a malady they don’t actually have. It’s important to make sure patients feel their concerns are being heard, but it’s equally important to make sure they aren’t causing themselves unnecessary problems by using their unfettered access to information improperly.


-Brian Wallace is president of NowSourcing, Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky.