Cyberchondria – Are we Putting Too Much Faith in Dr. Google?

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You may be reading this post because you are curious about that term – “cyberchondria.” 

It’s not hard to figure out what it means. It means hypochondriac-ism as a result of doing online searches. More precisely, the act of diagnosing ourselves by using the web, then upsetting ourselves through our findings. It’s when we decide a headache is really brain cancer, or low blood sugar is translated as Parkinsons, or forgetfulness becomes Alzheimers.

The word “cyberchondria” has been around for 20 years or so, ever since search engines first arrived on the web scene. It is often couched in the same sneer as self-diagnosis, as if no non-medical professional should be taking their time trying to figure out what their symptoms mean on their own.

We can’t possibly be smart enough to do that, right? Argh. Bull-pooky!

As a result, I find the word insulting; as if we patients don’t have the ability to process information properly, or are blowing our symptoms out of proportion. It’s at least as insulting as my last post, about providers telling patients their symptoms are “all in your head.” 

If there is one thing I hate, it’s being underestimated. Calling a patient a “cyberchondriac,” or insisting that patients are wasting their time by self-diagnosing are both underestimations. Totally demeaning and disrespectful.

And so I actually take a different approach to such insults. See what you think:

We know our bodies better than anyone. We know when everything feels right, and we know when something feels “off.”

Because we know our bodies, and because – unlike our providers – we can take time to explore more information as it’s presented to us, we may actually have the ability and opportunity to be even more accurate than our providers by using the web, provided (and this is important!) we know the best ways to use only accurate and credible information to do so. This includes the fact that providers aren’t being trained anymore to diagnose by using their own sense. They are being trained to rely on test results.

Now, that may sound like a good thing – and often it is. But test results can be wrong (mine were wrong twice!) and not every diagnosis has a corresponding conclusive test anyway. So then what?

In my book, You Bet Your Life! The 10 Mistakes Every Patient Makes (How to Fix Them to Get the Healthcare You Deserve), I actually teach readers how to do what doctors are supposed to do, and don’t do often enough. It’s called creating a “differential diagnosis;” a way of comparing symptoms to possible diagnoses to arrive at the best answer. It’s one way to answer the question, “What else can it be?”

As an aside:  if this seems overwhelming, or if you are confused by the process, then this is a great time to bring in a private patient advocate to help. Just sayin’.

collaborationHowever – and this is important, too:  once you’ve developed your differential diagnosis, don’t simply keep the results to yourself. Once you’ve developed your list of possibilities, share your list with your doctor. Why?  Because, when properly presented, it can show your doctor what symptoms you have and how you have weighed them. Just as important, it can show your doctor what symptoms you do NOT have so that some possibilities can be ruled out. And finally, it can give your doctor guidance as to what tests may confirm the right answer.

[Sidebar here…] Whatever you do, don’t insult your doctor by presenting your differential diagnosis as a firm answer. Use the results to ask questions as a way of acknowledging your doctor’s expertise, but allowing that there are other possibilities. Your doctor’s experience and training have been far more extensive than your hour or two of searching the web. Be collaborative.

Smart patients develop their differential diagnosis to help them determine next steps, and what to seek in a second opinion when the symptoms or possible diagnosis suggests one is needed.

Also, it’s worth noting that sharing your differential diagnosis study results with your provider can command the respect you need from your provider. That’s an important part of your relationship. And, frankly, if it doesn’t command respect, you may need a new provider.

Conclusion – don’t let the system or providers insult you by insisting your symptoms aren’t real or important, or that you can’t self-diagnose. You’ve now learned a great way to uncover alternate possibilities that can be very accurate, options you can explore further with your doctor to arrive at the most accurate conclusions. Priceless.

 

Resource:  How to Diagnose Yourself Using the Internet (This is an article originally published in 2013, but which hasn’t changed much in that time. It is no longer available publicly, but you can find it at Archive.org)

 

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