All of us have done it, waking in the middle of the night with a pounding headache with lymph nodes like tennis balls and feeling awful, we have turned to good old Dr Google to figure out what’s wrong. Sitting alone in a dark room with nothing but fear and a screen full of horrible possibilities and more symptoms develop. More “research” uncovers more signs of imminent death. In fact google has given a positive diagnosis based on – sore shoulders, yes, lethargy, yes, increased thirst, yes, moons disappearing on my nails, OMG yes! So I must have the Zika virus! Because we all know that google has been handing out honary medical degrees since 1977.
Searching for symptoms online is now so common that google can generate accurate statistics on flu outbreaks based solely on search queries. This sense of anxiety that one gets when trying to diagnose an ailment via google there is a name for it – “Cyberchondria”. And this is not new, in 2001 it was known as “internet print out syndrome”, and it has been recognised in scientific journals as far back as 2003. Cyberchondria can have tangible negative effects, it is a viscous cycle that can get worse the longer the time spent seeking out answers. It can snowball into additional fears about visits to healthcare professionals, medical costs and job loss. People that are prone to anxiety are more susceptible to this viscous cycle, people who don’t tolerate uncertainty well or worry about the future are most likely to spiral into cyberchondria (Fergus, 2013). This is compounded by the fact that there is so much misinformation available online. When search terms regarding sudden infant death syndrome were investigated it was found that of thirteen hundred websites analysed only 43.5% contained information in line with the relevant recognised recommendations(Chung et al., 2012).
Runners generally pride themselves on their self sufficiency and will often self-diagnose by reading the horror stories of other runners online and will spiral into deep web based fear. The reality is that when runners increase focus on a particular part of their body they can develop and manifest injuries that may not actually be the main issue. But this trend may not detract from visits to healthcare professionals. It can alert people to the fact that they urgently need a second opinion. Hippocrates – the father of our modern medicine lived about 2400 years ago. Born in the Greek island of Cos and he lived to the age of 104. He was one of the first to conduct experiments and collect data to show and prove that disease was not caused by magic or demons but was in fact a natural process, caused by the natural reactions of the body to the disease process. He recognised that the human body functioned as one unified organism, and must be treated, in health and disease, as one coherent, integrated whole. He felt that not only the patient’s subjective symptoms, but the objective signs of the disease must also be considered to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. It was Hippocrates who finally freed medicine from the shackles of magic, superstition, and the supernatural. He believed in vis medicatrix naturae – which translates as “The Force of Nature Heals” and held the opinion that the healthcare provider is a mere servant and facilitator of nature. All medical treatment is aimed at allowing the innate resistance of the body to overcome disease, and bring about recovery. Our culture assumes that medical and healthcare professionals know everything and patients can’t possibly add anything useful. Some patients are not ready to accept more accountability for their own care. What’s needed is fundamental reform in the patient’s role — from that of a passive recipient of care to an active contributor assigned defined tasks, and accountability for results. In other words, we need to view the patient’s role as a job and assign a job description to them that supports the best health outcomes possible. But in our healthcare system the roles and responsibilities of patients are rarely clearly defined or fully supported. Patients routinely take on frustrating tasks, such as the transfer of vital information from one healthcare provider to another. They struggle to get access to the information they need to tend to their own care. They spend anxious days and weeks waiting for results and chasing onward referrals. For patients to be content with care, encouraged to play their part, attend required appointments, and to be compliant with care they need the support of a system designed to help them play their role effectively, because their role is the most important within our healthcare system. Doctors, nurse’s physiotherapists and other health care professionals are not required for healing to happen. They educate, empower and motivate, they manage the process and advise on strategy…. But they don’t heal; medical and health practitioners are not healers or fixers. Healing can be facilitated and supported but only the body can heal itself. As for the anxiety caused by cyberchondria – go google a cure for that!.
Chung M, Oden RP, Joyner BL, Sims A & Moon RY. (2012). Safe infant sleep recommendations on the Internet: let’s Google it. J Pediatr 161, 1080-1084.
Fergus TA. (2013). Cyberchondria and intolerance of uncertainty: examining when individuals experience health anxiety in response to Internet searches for medical information. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw 16, 735-739.