The internet is free and convenient; everyone can access worldwide information anywhere and anytime, and almost every question can be answered with just a single click. However, the internet might not be the best place for some questions—medical ones, for instance. I believe most readers here used to google their symptoms when they felt sick at least once in a while, and sometimes a simple headache might be found as a part of a brain tumor. A brief dizziness or feeling lightheaded seemed to be a symptom of heart disease. Realizing you might catch a widely known and lethal disease, your palms feel a little moist, cold sweat trickles down your cheeks, and your heart pounds so hard it starts to hurt. “What’s happening to me?” you ask yourself repeatedly. Wait, what were the symptoms of heart disease again? Pressing back in the browser a couple of times, on the heart disease page, you see a list of symptoms including chest pain or discomfort, dizziness, lightheadedness, a racing heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Did you just check all the boxes? The tension escalates so quickly as all the evidence supports your fear becoming a reality.
These were what “Doctor Google” told us anyway. Luckily, most of the time, this was not the case, and there is a good reason why we need a doctor who spends years honing their craft, not through online courses either, with our medical problem. This phenomenon is called “Cyberchondria”, and this article will take everyone down the rabbit hole of this weird phenomenon together.
What exactly is cyberchondria?
Let’s start with the definition: cyberchondria, or compucondria, is “a clinical phenomenon that arises from the irrational rise of health worries about common symptoms based upon extensive online search findings.” A person with cyberchondria is called a “Cyberchondriac”.
Some obvious symptoms of cyberchondria include non-stop (cannot stop) surfing the internet for information, spending too much time panic searching on mild symptoms, growing anxiety when discovering a linked ailment, and believing more in the search result than the doctor. The name “cyberchondria” is a combination of the terms “cyber” and “hypochondria”. Cyberchondria and hypochondria are essentially the same condition, but the source of medical information for hypochondriacs is not fixed to just the internet, which might be rather uncommon nowadays.
In addition, unlike cyberchondria, hypochondria is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), also known as illness anxiety disorder, which essentially means that hypochondria is a legitimate diagnosis while cyberchondria is just a wordplay that emerged alongside the rise of the digital era.
What is the cause of cyberchondria?
As the internet becomes a part of our lives and the health information available to us becomes limitless, cyberchondria becomes more prevalent. One thing that we need to make clear is that the internet is not a doctor, and if you are not a doctor either, searching for the symptom on the internet is not diagnosing. The findings of Matthew et al. show that the main indicator that one might suffer from cyberchondria is one’s level of health anxiety.
It is fair to be concerned when the possibility of having heart disease is shown on the website, right? Well, this might have something to do with the website interface. The result of searching for a common symptom usually shows all possible diseases, including rare or deadly ones. While more common diseases are also shown on the page, they are usually less interesting compared to the exotic ones. This is a common bias that can occur even in medical diagnosis. Some common cognitive biases that occasionally cause diagnostic errors include “confirmation bias” and “anchoring bias”.
Confirmation bias is when you already have a result or belief in your mind, so you only look for the information or evidence that confirms it while neglecting the one that contradicts it. In medical diagnosis, it is usually the case that when the doctors get a result from an initial diagnosis, they tend to cling to that result rather than considering other alternative diagnoses or data. In addition, when a cyberchondriac has this bias cloud on his head, the result of googling the symptom would only confirm that he has this one illness that he is always super sure he has.
Another cognitive bias is the anchoring bias. This one is very similar to the previous bias; it is when you rely too heavily on the first piece of evidence exposed to you, like having your mind anchor to that first piece of information. Misdiagnosis usually happens when a doctor does not deliberately consider all the information, like when the first piece of information is counted on a bit too much. The same goes for when googling the symptom on the internet; the first illness you get is not always the right one.
What’s the big deal about cyberchondria?
Apart from getting you worked up for no good reason, Mathew et al. also found that cyberchondriacs tend to make more medical appointments based on the results of online searches, likely wasting time and money. However, for those with low health anxiety, searching for health information on the internet will likely lower the number of doctor’s appointments. More worrisome drawback of cyberchondria is health-related problems, as falsely believing one has an illness might cause excessive intake of some drugs or neglect the appropriate treatment.
How can you deal with cyberchondria?
Luckily, the development of digital technology has brought not only problems but also solutions. Telemedicine and digital healthcare become more advanced as time goes by. Many developers have designed platforms where you can directly communicate with the doctor with minimum time lag; some even send you the medicine right away. The other side of the terrible COVID-19 pandemic was a skyrocket in teleconsultation and telemedicine, as going out during the pandemic was not so popular because obviously no one wanted to risk getting COVID. The claim was supported by a study by Ramaswamy et al., which showed an almost 9,000 percent increase in telemedicine utilization during the pandemic, with high patient satisfaction as well.
Health anxiety occurring when using the internet can be avoided or decreased with a little bit more attention from both the developers and the users. An online health information website with a clear user interface, an explicit probability of related illness, and a relationship between the symptoms and diagnoses should give the users a more accurate result. As for the user, the internet is definitely useful as a source of information, thus the ability to determine whether the source is reliable or not is very crucial, and an understanding of how the algorithm works would greatly undermine the anxiety that the user might come across. Thus, the most reliable source of health information should be the doctor. If the result of your googling does not get rid of your concern, then getting a check-up, whether in-person or via telemedicine, is unquestionably better than leaving yourself skeptical.
All in all, anxiety has been encoded in our DNA since the dawn of humanity, likely related to the work of evolution. In the wild, if you notice something moving in the bush, think it might be a tiger, and start running, your chance to survive is usually higher than that of your friend, who thinks that it must have been the wind. That is to say, anxiety has a role to play in our lives; use it wisely and moderately.
Department of Digital Intelligence Strategy and Policy
Digital Economy Promotion Agency
- Eastin, M. S., & Guinsler, N. M. (2006). Worried and Wired: Effect of Health Anxiety on Information-Seeking and Health Care Utilization Behaviours. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 494-498.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, August 25). Heart disease. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20353118#:~:text=Heart%20disease%20describes%20a%20range,born%20with%20(congenital%20heart%20defects)
- N. H. (2022, June 30). CYBERCHONDRIA – HOW TO COPE WITH IT. Retrieved from Narayana Health: https://www.narayanahealth.org/blog/cyberchondria-how-to-cope-with-it/#:~:text=What%20is%20cyberchondria%3F,upon%20extensive%20online%20search%20findings.
- Ramaswamy A, Yu M, Drangsholt S, Ng E, Culligan PJ, Schlegel PN, Hu JC. (2020). Patient Satisfaction With Telemedicine During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Retrospective Cohort Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research.
- Rowe, S. (2021, October 13). What Is Cyberchondria? Retrieved from PsychCentral: https://psychcentral.com/anxiety/cyberchondria
- Senelick, R. C. (2023, March 24). Cyberchondria—You Can Catch It on the Internet. Retrieved from Ecompass Health: https://blog.encompasshealth.com/2021/03/02/cyberchondria-you-can-catch-it-on-the-internet/
- Starcevic, V. (2017). Cyberchondria: Challenges of Problematic Online Searches for Health-Related Information. Psychotheraph and Psychosomatics, 129-133.
- Tiffany S. Doherty, PhD and Aaron E. Carroll, MD, MS. (2020). Believing in Overcoming Cognitive Biases. AMA J Ethic, 773-778.