By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD (Proactive Health Labs)
Online symptom checkers – often referred to as “Dr. Google” – where you simply enter whatever is ailing you and get a likely long list of what may be causing the problem, are some of the most popular and most visited sites on the Internet. They are so popular that various studies estimate that over 90 percent of us have used them at one time or another to ask about everything from the common cold, stiff joints and migraines to specif
There are a wide variety of sites to choose from, including the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, WebMD and FamilyDoctor.org. While all the online symptom checkers are different in terms of design and functionality, the basic idea behind them all is that you choose a body part (such as your arm) and symptoms (such as an itchy rash) and then follow prompts to help the platform give you some diagnostic suggestions.
When You’re Going Overboard: Cyberchondriac
And while the general consensus among healthcare providers is that these sites can play a role in helping you be proactive about managing your health, using them too often or visiting less-than-reputable sites can do you more harm than good. In fact, overuse of these checkers has spawned a new term – “cyberchondriac” – which is a twist on hypochondriac. According to experts, cyberchondriacs search the web excessively – and sometimes obsessively – for healthcare information.
People who suffer from this ailment have a tendency to interpret normal variations or changes in how their bodies function as being a symptom of a major and perhaps even life-threatening disease. For example, a cyberchondriac will enter “headache” and then may end the session convinced beyond a doubt that the headache is being caused by a tumor.
The pitfalls of falling into this type of online behavior and the risks it presents to your health are clear. One is that you may start to believe that every cough or rash is indicative of something serious. And as you continue to search, each click magnifies your fears and you start to search more for something that will definitely confirm your supposed disease.
Or you may start to frantically search for something that tells you that you’ll be fine if you try some new, unproven home remedy. Neither is good for taking care of your health, since the former could result in unnecessary trips to the doctor, expensive medical tests and stress, while the latter could convince you to not seek any medical advice or treatment at all when it is truly needed. Neither extreme promotes good health.
So how can you tell if you are or if you’re becoming a cyberchondriac?
According to a paper by the New York State Psychiatric Institute, here are some telltale signs that your online symptom checking has led to cyberchondria:
- You check online for symptom information for up to 1 to 3 hours per day
- You fear having several different diseases
- On your worst day, you’ve checked 3 to 4 times a day
- Looking online to get symptom information makes you feel more anxious
- Your health is actually medically stable
If any of the above ever apply to your online behavior when it comes to health research, your best bet is to go cold turkey and stop checking!
Think of it like quitting smoking or taking a social media break.
“Dr. Google’s” Proper Role is Education
Despite some initial – and ongoing – concerns and misgivings about online symptom checkers, healthcare experts and providers are in agreement that they are here to stay. They also agree that their popularity and use will only continue to increase. So, since you’re most likely part of the majority that visits them, what should you look out for and how can you get the most benefit from them?
First off, you need to remember that not all online symptom checkers are created equal. You need to be cautious about what they tell you and how you interpret the results. This is especially true since, depending on which site you are visiting, the results you get may not be accurate. In fact, researchers put them to the test by seeing how the sites performed on diagnosing case studies used at medical schools. They only provided a correct diagnosis as one of the top three possible diagnoses about 50 percent of the time. They did a little better in advising people to seek immediate medical care, in around 57 percent of the cases.
The takeaway here is that while online sites are a very useful tool for educating yourself and helping prepare you to have a more informed conversation with your doctor or healthcare provider, they do not take their place on your health and wellness team. Just use them as an additional arsenal in your proactive health toolkit.
You should also limit yourself to sites that include licensed and respected healthcare professionals whose advice is based on scientific studies and proven research.
Partner with Your Doctor, Don’t Use “Dr. Google” to Replace Him or Her
Doctors unanimously agree that partnering with their patients who are well-prepared for their appointments usually results in more productive discussions and better treatment outcomes. So, use the information you have gathered from online symptom checkers and resources such as www.phlabs.org to prepare yourself ahead of time and to know what questions to ask. You can also do the following to maximize the benefit of your appointment:
- Prioritize and prepare. Think about what is bothering you most. Common issues in middle-aged and older people include increased weight and fatigue, problems with the digestive system, frequent colds, sinus issues, sleep disturbances, lack of focus/decreased memory, neurological symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, various chronic pain syndromes, decreased exercise tolerance and hormonal issues. Being prepared with the issues you want to bring up will get you more of what you want, and the doctor will have an easier time understanding exactly what your concerns are.
- Be organized. Clearly define your most important health issues and goals, ideally in order of importance. Just randomly talking about any health complaints as they come to mind can be confusing for everyone. Most doctors have to work in time-pressed clinical settings, and generally have to weed out what the main issues are in order to help you. Organizing helps you get better answers and faster.
- Be specific. Specific questions – like, “Do patients ever have long-term side effects from CT scan dye?” or “At my age, what are the possible risks of having general anesthesia?” – will convey your concerns more clearly and open up a discussion, as opposed to only saying, “I don’t want to do that.” Instead of saying, “I don’t like prescription medications,” try being more specific, such as, “I’d really like to try taking yoga classes three times per week. If I still feel depressed, I will try the antidepressants.” Let your doctor know what your plan is and why you’d like to try something else. This keeps the line of communication open.
By using online symptom checkers and other healthcare sites appropriately and judiciously, you can greatly enhance both your relationship with your doctor and maximize the value of your own steps to protect your health.
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.
Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs (www.phlabs.org), a national non-profit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is Minerals – The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy, available through Amazon, iTunes and bookstores.