Misdiagnosed Cyberchondriasis

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On 7/21/2007, a Harris Poll was released which stated that in the last two years, the percentage of people who “have used the Internet to search for health-related information” has gone from 53% to 71%. This was based on a telephone poll of 1,010 adults between 7/10/07 and 7/16/07. The Harris report refers to these people as “cyberchondriacs.”

The media seems to love this story. BusinessWeek, ars technica and a ton of others have offered articles on it.

I think the study matters and merits coverage, but I object to the term “cyberchondriac.”

Managed care has resulted in physicians not being able to spend as much time educating patients at the same time patients are taking more responsibility for their healthcare decisions. The healthcare consumer who decides to do some research using the most powerful research tool the world has ever seen isn’t a hypochondriac. That consumer is taking responsibility for her healthcare and becoming informed.

Let us say that a patient is told that she had a kind of hypothyroidism. That patient goes to the bookstore and buys a book published under the name of Mayo (or Johns Hopkins or some other very reputable authority) on thyroid disorders. The patient reads the book and makes notes on questions she wants to ask her doctor when she goes in for her next office visit. This isn’t hypochondriasis. This is the sort of patient clinicians should treasure. A patient who self-educates and asks informed questions saves the time of clinicians.

Now let’s imagine that the same patient skips the book and instead searches Medline Plus for information about hypothyroidism, printing some pages out and making notes on questions she wants to ask her doctor when she goes in for her next office visit. This isn’t hypochondria either. This is the exact same behavior in a patient that clinicians should celebrate and encourage.

Hypochondriasis is a very real disorder. The hypochondriac doesn’t need an Internet connection to experience its awful symptoms.

If clinicians want to complain about patients who look up health information online with no regard to the authority of the information or the information provider, that’s fine. Those clinicians would do well to volunteer and donate to help improve outreach and information literacy programs in medical libraries. When the clinician encounters a patient who habitually looks for health information from poor sources, the clinician should refer the patient to the nearest medical library or at least point the patient towards Medline Plus.

I won’t be using the word “cyberchondriac” to describe people who seek health information online.

I won’t use it to describe hypochondriacs who look for health information online, either. It has a glib feel to it that doesn’t sit well with me when describing someone dealing with a disorder as awful as hypochondriasis.

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