Consulting ‘Dr. Google’
With medical information at our fingertips, more and more people are googling their symptoms online, only to find it makes them even more ‘health anxious’.
I wake up in the morning with a stabbing pain behind my eye. I take a tylenol but then I start worrying what this new pain might mean. Instead of making an appointment at the health clinic, I head online and type “pain behind eye”. It’s so easy. I click to check just to make sure this new symptom doesn’t bode something terrible. But instead of considering the long list of more likely causes reported on Healthline – I fixate on that ‘scary’ list of reasons at the bottom of the article. Now I’m convinced I have a brain tumor, or possibly an aneurysm, and I wonder if I should be speeding off to the ER. What began as a quick internet search has just triggered another health anxiety episode.
And the spiral begins, again.
Does this sound familiar?
I’ve been through this cycle many times. The stomach ache that might be ovarian cancer. The tingling along my cheek that could be a minor stroke. This list goes on and my worries of course extend to my daughters – that article about leg pains and leukemia.
Are you a Cyberchondriac?
It turns out, the anxiety I feel and my tendency to jump to the most rare diagnosis after googling my symptoms has a name: ‘cyberchondria’. According to the Pew Research Center, going online to symptom check is an increasing trend. Survey results showed that 7 in 10 internet users have looked up health information online. A third of adults in the U.S. have used the internet to self-diagnose a medical problem.
If I’m honest with myself, I know that relying on the internet for medical information is not the best idea. Certainly, it’s bound to turn up all the ‘worst case scenarios’ that I never knew were even possible. Reading about tragic health stories on message boards or an article on a rare diagnosis are common triggers for health anxiety.
Why Can’t I Stop Googling my Symptoms?
Why is ‘Dr. Google’ so compelling? Over the past few years, several researchers have explored how the internet can increase health anxiety and this new phenomenon of ‘cyberchondria’. One study, by McManus et al, tried to determine why people turn to the internet for their health answers and its impact.
They found two main motivations behind our symptom searching:
1. Information is power
First, all participants believed that “information is power.” There’s a drive to learn as much as possible about our symptoms so that we can get treated at the “earliest possible stage.” If we’ve been sick in the past we may fear getting sick again. Similarly, seeing someone we love pass away can make us extra vigilant and know how vital it is to recognize those initial signs of disease. As the authors explain, googling my symptoms gives “easy access to a wealth of such information, allowing us to feel more in control of our health.”
2. It’s convenient
Second, participants liked the internet as a more accessible, convenient and inexpensive tool to get medical information than traditional sources. Our instant access to ‘Dr. Google’ means we don’t have to endure lengthy wait times for appointments. It’s more private and less embarrassing than talking to a physician about intimate concerns face-to-face. And we can avoid travel costs or the need to take time off work.
The internet also provides us with a unique opportunity to learn about other people’s experiences. We can compare our symptoms and treatments to patients similar to ourselves. This can sometimes give us new ideas to discuss with our physician and help us feel less alone.
How Googling my Symptoms can Increase Health Anxiety
The internet can be a valuable resource for medical information. One of my favorite sites, Caring for Kids, provides reliable information about how to manage common childhood infections and when it is a good idea to call the doctor.
However, as the 2008 study by White and Horvitz at Microsoft Research found, using the internet for self-diagnosis “can lead users to believe that common symptoms are likely the result of serious illnesses.”
Search engine rankings
After conducting a log-based study of medical queries, the researchers discovered some interesting patterns in how search engines present us content. I was fascinated when I read the results.
For example, the study showed that typing in a common symptom like muscle twitches gave us links about ALS more frequently than muscle strain. Muscle twitches can be an early sign of ALS. However, the incident rate in the population is very low (about 1:55,000). On the other hand, benign causes for twitches like being tired, stress, and caffeine are very common. Similarly, searches about headaches offered as many results on ‘brain tumors’ as it did about ‘caffeine withdrawal’. The authors argue that given how rare brain tumors are (around 1:10,000), the number of pages on ‘brain tumors’ in the top-10 web search results was much higher than the general incidence rate.
Why does this happen?
According to the authors, it has to do with how google or yahoo, for instance, rank search results. One factor the algorithms consider is ‘user clicks’ and how long we spend on a web page. When users (like us health anxious individuals) are more compelled to check out material on serious health issues than less concerning (although more common) explanations, the websites on the rare but threatening disorders can be pushed to the top of the search lists.
As White and Horvitz explain, this can create a vicious cycle. We anxiously click on those top-ranked web results and ignore the lower ranked, more mundane pages. This only serves to put those more alarming (and anxiety provoking) health conditions even higher on the ranking lists.
Even more reasons to worry
While I might initially turn to the internet for information that will reassure my concerns, the results I click after googling my symptoms often gives me even more reasons to worry!
McManus et al suggest, in the short-term our online searching can lower our health anxiety. We feel like we are taking control of the situation and getting information that could possibly prevent or find an illness early.
Unfortunately, in the long-term our health anxiety can actually be increased. We start worrying about all those more serious conditions we discover and hadn’t previously considered.
In fact, even when we do come across reassuring information, a study by Baumgartner and Hartmann suggests that health anxious people focus on the negative. We are more worried by the alarming information we find than we are comforted by the information that suggests everything is ‘okay’. Consequently, we head back online to search through more results – and the cycle begins again.
Breaking the Cycle of Cyberchondria
Am I a cyberchondriac? Definitely. I still struggle with the urge not to head online every time I or my children experience a new symptom – just to make sure. I want to do everything I can to keep myself and my family happy and healthy. But the conclusions I jump to after googling my symptoms always triggers another health anxiety episode.
Here are a few things I do to keep the balance:
1. I have a health journal
I write down any symptoms that are bothering me in a journal with the date and a general description. If I can think of any potential contributing factors, I include them as well (activities, diet, mood). This has been an invaluable tool for both me and my doctor. I’m able to keep track of all the small details and it allows her to make a more informed diagnosis based on any patterns she sees developing in my notes. There are a number of ‘symptom tracker’ apps out there. I like to use an old fashioned notebook.
2. Health Help Line
If I have a question that I don’t believe is urgent but would like to know more about (especially when the kids are sick) I call my local free health service called Telehealth Ontario. This service is available to Ontarians 24-7 and allows me to speak to a Registered Nurse. Without a physical exam, the nurses are not able to formally diagnose a medical condition, but they do provide excellent advice on at home care options and help me decide if I should check in with a doctor.
3. Reputable Medical Websites
I still like to be as informed as possible about any medical conditions or treatments my family are prescribed. Once we have our doctor’s opinion, I look up the details from reputable sources like those associated with hospitals (the mayo clinic), government sites (I like HealthLinksBC or the CDC), and non-profit health organizations (for example, the Canadian Cancer Society).
Do you have any strategies for keeping your online health searching anxiety in check? Share them with us in the comments below!
I’m not an expert. If you have any concerns about your health, you should always consult your doctor or other qualified health-care provider and don’t disregard or delay seeking professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment because of anything you read on this site. Wishing you well.
Baumgartner, S. E., & Hartmann, T. (2011). The role of health anxiety in online health information search. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 613-618.
Fox, S. & Duggan, M. (2013) Health Online 2013. Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project.
McManus, F., Leung, C., Muse, K. & Williams, JMG. (2014) Understanding ‘cyberchondria’: an interpretive phenomenological analysis of the purpose, methods and impacts of seeking health information online for those with health anxiety. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 7 (21), 1-13.
White, R. W., & Horvitz, E. (2009). Cyberchondria: Studies of the escalation of medical concerns in web search. ACM Transactions on Information Systems, 27(4), 1-37