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Rise of the Cyberchondriacs: Why the Internet is Not a Replacement for a Doctor

Cropped SingleCare logo By | May 11, 2016

Have a headache? Feel a bit off-balance? Suffering from a run-of-the-mill stomach ache? These days patients take to the Internet to self-diagnose, and oftentimes they’re terrified by what they find. But what we’re all really suffering from is cyberchondria…

Before the convenience and immediacy of the Internet, the majority of self-diagnoses used to come from medical students, who believed themselves to be suffering from the same diseases they were studying. The phenomena was so common that it became a recognized condition in its own right: Medical Students’ Disease. The psychosomatic disorder is a form of nosophobia — fear of disease — and requires that sufferers know the symptoms of the diseases they think they’re suffering from before they exhibit the actual symptoms.

Now, patients have easy access to 1.3 trillion gigabytes of data on the web, and an increasing number of them come to their physicians with preliminary hypotheses about their condition based on personal research, which can lead to poor health outcomes and red herrings in their consultations. Increasingly, we’ve started diagnosing ourselves with diseases that are incredibly rare, which can take a serious toll on our stress levels and well-being before, and even well after, we consult our doctors.

Rare Diseases By the Numbers

Sad woman with tissue and medicines lying on bed

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The definition of a rare disease differs from country to country. For example, a disease is considered rare in America if it affects fewer than 200,000 people at any given time whereas a disease is considered rare in Europe if it is occurs in fewer than one out of 2000 cases. The official Rare Disease Day website explains the impact of these disparities: “One rare disease may affect only a handful of patients in the EU (European Union), and another touch as many as 245,000. In the EU, as many as 30 million people alone may be affected by one of over 6000 rare diseases existing.”

Oftentimes cyberchondriacs, as they are called, take to the internet to understand the reason behind an unusual but not deadly symptom and, reading the most serious affliction in the list of possible diagnoses, jump to unnecessarily grave conclusions.

Take Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (or ALS), for example. It rose to fame because of the Ice Bucket Challenge, but the disease affects only two out of every 100,000 people.

While awareness and activism are certainly warranted for those suffering from the debilitating illness, consider what is more likely to happen than developing ALS before you self-diagnose:

  • You are about five times more likely to bowl a perfect 300 in a game of bowling (1 in  11,500).
  • You’re five times as likely to win an Oscar.
  • You’re also four times more likely to hit a hole in one (1 in 12,500).

Why You Should be Wary of the Internet’s Medical Advice

Woman with flu
[Tinatin1, ThinkStock]

Apart from making you much more nervous than you need to be over common conditions, misdiagnosing your symptoms can be dangerous and costly. An article in Women’s Health Magazine tells of a woman, who after diagnosing herself with chronic fatigue syndrome, self-prescribed supplements, only to find out several hundred dollars later that she was anemic. Anemia is easily treatable and an incredibly common disease; simply going to the doctor could have saved the woman the hassle and cost.

So Talk to Your Doctor First!

The most common side effect of self-diagnosing is unnecessary stress or money spent, which in the long run, is certainly survivable. There isn’t anything wrong with taking to the internet when you’re feeling unwell, but it is important to follow up with a medical professional if you’re concerned; you should always talk to your doctor about the symptoms you’re experiencing before asking for specific tests to rule out unlikely conditions.
Concerned about the doctor bills from these check-ins? Don’t be — with SingleCare, you only pay for the care you receive. What’s more, SingleCare’s prescription finder can help you save on any consequent prescriptions. So all you cyberchondriacs can feel free to take to the internet — just be discerning about what you find and be sure to follow up with your doctor.

[Main image credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz, ThinkStock]