« Coming Down from Cyberchondria, part II | Main | Results from Health Plan Contracting e-Poll: Value Based Payment Models »

Coming Down from Cyberchondria, part I

By Laurie Gelb, June 1, 2011

In 1998, Harris Interactive came up with the above term to describe health Web information-seeking, and has been popularizing the phenomenon ever since. HI’s official definition states that this dread disease applies to hypochondriacs for whom the Web contains “too much information,” i.e. they become convinced from Googling “headache” that they have a brain tumor.

Might someone who honestly convinces herself, with or without the Internet’s help, that every headache is a tumor, demonstrate an impaired belief system in other respects? But it’s trendy to blame the Net for neuroses, just as we once convinced ourselves that allowing women to read would only breed or worsen hysteria.

According to many reports, it’s a closed circle. If you research symptoms on line, you’re diagnosing yourself. And if you’re diagnosing yourself, you’re a…no, I can’t say it.

Predictably, Microsoft published a white paper on “cyberchondria” in 2009 and recently it made TV news again as a new phenomenon. What’s the next hot ticket – hula hoops?  

So it’s OK to self-diagnose your dishwasher’s or car’s ills on line, and seek appropriate care, but not your body, because…wait a minute, what do I know about cars? Well, I’ve mastered filling up at the gas pump, and my skills at clearing a fogged windshield are unmatched. But neglecting my car can’t kill anybody, right? Oh, hold on…

Can we draw a line that includes reasonable presumptive dx? When your members think they have a simple headache that’s not life-threatening, most of them pop two NSAID tabs. That’s totally appropriate self care. Do you want patients to rush to their docs for simple headaches so you won’t judge them as cyberchondriacs? Or because you just did?

Self-diagnosis and care, to a point, relieve strain on our overcrowded system, produce cost-effective outcomes and improve health status. We spend a lot of money on decision support to help patients understand that point –and rightly so.

In 2011, asserting that the Web fuels hypochondria is akin to lambasting the existence of motor vehicles for encouraging speeders. Like it or not, the health Web is not the pool room south of downtown that respectable people shun. It is the commons of your world. If you want another planet, I hear Mars is lovely in the spring.

We miss opportunities to play a win/win role in millions of health-related explorations that can and should improve care and outcomes – and on which any rational sufferer will embark -- when we glibly apply the language of disease and switch the burden of proving “appropriate” exploration to the user – while at the same time preaching minimalist self-care. If you’re concerned with the reliability of what’s out there for member consumption,  don’t shoot the messenger, improve the landscape.


Reader Comments (1)

"If you’re concerned with the reliability of what’s out there for member consumption, don’t shoot the messenger, improve the landscape. "

Exactly! Thank you for this post, time and again people (with real, diagnosed conditions) have shared stories about how they were not believed by their physician, scoffed at for knowing that something was wrong with their own bodies.

While I'm sure there are some "cyberchondriac" aspects of the overwhelming glut of information that may or may not be reliable, patients are just trying to find information that is reliable, and we need help, not ridicule. This is why groups of patients gain so much from each other, they are sharing common information without doubt or stigma.

See and for more information.

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjonmcrawford

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>