Psychologists have warned that hypochondria among healthy patients is reaching new levels due to the growing use of the Internet. Researchers have uncovered that millions of Britons choose to seek answers online rather than visit their doctors, an act that could lead to misdiagnosis and potentially pose a risk to health.
A study conducted by Dr Thomas Fergus (of Baylor University in Waco, Texas) surveyed 512 healthy people to analyse how using the Internet in this way affected their anxiety. Dr Fergus says through his study he found that fearing a disease or illness, unfounded or not, can trigger worries about job loss, medical bills and disability. All of these anxieties can then lead to even more searching on the Internet, causing potentially unnecessary distress.
He adds that cyberchondria can be a more harmful than the traditional version of hypochondria as there is so much information on the Internet, not all of which is accurate. These medical looking sites then have the potential to worry readers, prompting them to search further and thus continuing the cycle of anxiety.
While fearing the worst about health is not a new issue, as some information on the Internet is sensationalised or even inaccurate, it could cause both anxiety and misdiagnosis. Last week NHS-backed body, the Information Standard revealed that four in 10 people admit to putting off a visit to their GP, with over half saying they turn to the Internet instead.
Nearly one in six people who self-diagnosed using the Internet were told by their doctors that they had a ‘lucky escape’ when they finally received the correct diagnosis – highlighting how potentially dangerous self-diagnosing can be.
While of course there are some helpful and respected medical websites on the Internet that can help people learn more about a certain illness, searching for symptoms and avoiding the doctors will only hinder our well-being.