By Samantha Bluhm
I don’t consider myself a hypochondriac, but my first year as marketing manager in the world of healthcare changed that perspective. One of my roles is to write and release relevant health and wellness information to the communities served by Vibrant Health Family Clinics in western Wisconsin. Typical news releases would range in content from the outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough) to calming fears or providing facts about the avian (bird) or swine (pig) influenza. Whatever the health topic, I became convinced I had become infected. A simple cough, ache, joint or back pain, headache, rash or fever would send me into panic that I had contracted the disease.
Worse, when I shared my fears with friends, they would google the symptoms and confirm that I may be at risk because of my exposure in the healthcare world. I spent as much time in my doctor’s office that first year as I did in my marketing office. I’m not suggesting it was rational, but it was my reality.
While searching to see if your sniffles match the symptoms of the cold or of the flu, wandering the web can fuel a sort of Internet-enabled hypochondria, dubbed “cyberchondria.” Unfounded anxieties over common health symptoms are becoming increasingly common as more people visit the Internet instead of the doctor, says Dr. Rita Raverty of Vibrant Health Family Clinics in River Falls. She has treated patients who—after experiencing common symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat enlarged lymph nodes—Google their symptoms and convince themselves they have cancer. One patient even reached a self-diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, says Dr. Matt Clayton, surgeon at Vibrant Health.
In the past year, about 35 percent of Americans have gone online to diagnose themselves or others, according to a survey from The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
“Every person is about four clicks away from deciding they have cancer and are going to die,” says Carrie Torgersen, MD, a Family Medicine physician at Vibrant Health Family Clinics in Rivers Falls, Wisconsin. “We know our patients are going to search and we want them to be empowered about their health, but there is just so much bad information on the Internet. It can sometimes cause more harm than good.”
Vibrant Health is here to partner with our patients and communities on health-related issues, including cyberchondriacs. Following are tips to help our patients be powered by health and wellness.
1. Search Trusted Websites
Any quack with an Internet connection can build a website. Make sure the sites you visit for health advice are reputable and vetted by medical experts.
Vibrant Health Family Clinics recommends the following:
Pregnancy and Baby Sites:
- Look for solutions, not problems
Use the internet proactively. If you look up a vague symptom that could be related to anything, you’ll end up lost in the black hole that is self-diagnosis and won’t leave your home for days. Don’t look up “fatigue,” look up “how to alleviate fatigue.”
- Don’t share your worries on social media
Your symptoms may or may not be the same as your friend on Facebook, but believe me when I say they’ll get comments that will only heighten your worst fear.
- Google only AFTER you visit your doctor
If you’re feeling brave, stop going to medical sites altogether. Instead, only research a diagnosis after actually receiving one from your doctor.