The Medical Student Syndrome Online: Cyberchondria

Today on the New York Times, there is an interesting article on the use of the internet to find medical and health information. The term Cyberchondria comes from the root words of cyber (internet) and hypochondria (an excessive preoccupation with one’s health). A cyberchondriac is then a person who uses the internet to gather health information for themselves or for people in their care.

This “cyberchondria” is not a new phenomenon. People have been using Dr. Google since the publication of medical literature on the internet. For many cases, the search engine diagnosis can be fairly accurate and empowers patients with an understanding of their illness. However, as stated in the article, people who use search engines for health care knowledge tend to focus on more serious and rare conditions, diseases that they most likely don’t have. And since the internet is a series of connected hyperlinks, after several clicks, the patient’s supposed disease has escalated into the most lethal incurable case possible. The web can be misleading.

The classic “medical student syndrome” is no longer confined to students in the walls of medical school. Anyone with an internet connection can start becoming paranoid about potential health risks with only some cursory reading. Hypochondria is affecting everybody. People are suffering from sleepless nights and loss of appetite over misconceived ideas and false conclusions can cause severe emotional harm. Furthermore, “self-diagnosising” often breeds mistrust between the doctor and the patient. The patient begins second-guessing the doctor’s assessment. They are willing to distort their symptoms and exaggerate the ones that support their hypothesis. This impairs a doctor’s ability to find the real source of the problem.

Despite the setbacks, accessible and public medical and health information is a good thing for patients. But in this age of information overload and non-reviewed online publications, doctors are just as needed as ever. They are experienced guides to navigate through the medical jargon jungle. They have years of proper education and real life experiences that have been tested and true. There is an old joke in medicine that asks, “What do Doctors do to exercise?” And the answer is exactly the same thing that plagues patients and cyberchondriacs, jumping to conclusions.

So next time you feel inclined to go online to look up your symptoms and select a potential explanation to your illness, take some extra time, and call your doctor to discuss with them your symptoms. Afterall, that’s what they are trained to do.

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