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Are You a Cyberchondriac?

Posted Jan 19th, 2009 by Trisha Torrey

See if this sounds familiar:

You experience some strange symptoms, so you go online to see if you can figure out what’s wrong with you.  What you find is somewhat alarming, so you make an appointment to see your doctor.

Armed with a few possibilities, and a handful of printouts, you visit your doctor.  Once in the exam room, the doctor asks you what brings you to her office. You tell her, “I feel symptom A, symptom B and symptom C.  So I went online to see what’s wrong with me, and it says I have diagnosis X.”

Nothing makes a health care provider cringe faster than the patient who says, "I think I must have diagnosis X because that’s what it says on the Internet."

"Why do patients come to see me if they already “know” what they have?" one doctor asked me. "Why do they think I bothered going to medical school if it’s so easy for them to diagnose themselves?"

He was right, of course. While the Web can be a powerful learning tool for health and medical information, it can also be dangerous when its information is translated incorrectly.

The term "cyberchondriac" was coined to describe people who use the web to support their self-diagnosed fantasies of dread diseases and chronic symptoms. They get a twinge here, or a sniffle there, then they run to the Internet to look up their symptoms. The word is a play on the word “hypochondriac” of course, fueled by too easy access to information they don’t know how to interpret themselves.  The next thing you know, cyberchondriacs have diagnosed themselves with cancer or some other major problem.

But that’s the key to the problem -- SELF-diagnosis. When we begin to experience symptoms that seem strange to us, it’s human nature to want to know what’s causing them. Easy access to information makes it too simple to punch in a few keywords, then come away with a result, ourselves, right or wrong.

My recommendation? Don’t do it. At least not at first. There are too many variables that make it almost impossible for you to diagnose yourself accurately.

Let your doctor diagnose you instead. She is trained to assess your history and symptoms, order tests to confirm or contradict, and use her experience and expertise to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Those are skills you don’t have, no matter how astute you are with a search engine.

Do I think you’ll avoid the Web while you wait to see your doctor?  Heavens, no. But I do think you can visit your doctor, and patiently wait for her to arrive at her own conclusions before you begin asking questions.  I’m not suggesting you simply withhold your findings. 

Instead, let your doctor do her thing. If you have both arrived at the same conclusions, then you’ll feel confidence in the diagnosis.

If she differs from what you expected to hear? Then, without sounding like you question her capabilities, ask her some questions about those specific symptoms that might have led you to believe something else through your Internet research.

Remember – your goal is to be a partner with your doctor to arrive at the right conclusion.  You share that partnership 50-50.  She represents the 50 percent that comes from education and experience.  You represent the 50 percent that comes from having lived in your body your entire life.

Too, it’s possible your doctor will have trouble arriving at a diagnosis. It’s even possible your doctor will be wrong. If so, then you’ll already be poised for further discussion.

Of course, once you have your doctor’s diagnosis, then by all means, use the Web and other resources to learn everything you can about both the diagnosis and your treatment options. Your partnership will pay off because you will have your doctor’s insights as a starting point.

I hope you won’t get caught in the cyberchondriac’s self-diagnosis web! A sharp patient knows to let the doctor do her job, and to use the Web later to expand his knowledge.  That’s the way to get the most from your partnership and the Internet.

 

About the author

Trisha Torrey is Every Patient's Advocate. She is a newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, national speaker, and the guide to patient empowerment at About.com.

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