We live in an age where many answers and solutions to various problems and questions are available online courtesy of the world’s most popular search engine, Google which has been reputed to handle over three billion searches daily.
Given that information on virtually any topic under the sun is available on this platform, we unwittingly turn to this search engine every time we are in a bind. We probably use any piece of information we dig up here to further our general knowledge or improve our arguments whenever the need arises and it therefore no surprise that the phrase, “ Google is your friend” exists.
Google has slowly grown in stature from being just a friend to becoming a doctor to many of us, giving rise to a second phrase, “Dr. Google”, because we can get quick fixes ranging from diagnosis to treatment of medical and mental conditions that may afflict us. This over reliance on the search engine as a quick fix on health matters continues to rise daily, especially with increased internet penetration across Kenya.
In 2016, Google released a report stating that nearly 1% of all google searches are health related. Indeed, research has shown that 80% of Internet users have searched for health-related questions online one time or another.
Case in Point
While it is not at all harmful seeking medical information from the internet, and Google in particular, the bigger problem stems from the decision to opt for self-diagnosis-based information from the internet. Many of us have opted to take this route whenever we are afflicted by symptoms that make us believe that we are suffering from the flu, malaria, depression or many other afflictions. Take the example of Kevin (not his real name) who had been struck by severe headaches over a period of time. He opted to go online to find out the cause of his headaches. Let’s just say Kevin came across a series of symptoms that were synonymous with his pain which pointed towards the existence of a brain tumor.
A petrified Kevin made his way to hospital, clear of what treatment to expect from the medics. He had after all diagnosed himself with a brain tumor and believed he would be dead in the next 96 hours if he did not undergo emergency surgery. Well, after a routine checkup by the attending medical team, it was discovered that he was suffered from migraine and that his condition could be managed through prescribed medication. We aren’t too sure how he felt after pressing the panic button but he probably emerged a wiser person no longer reliant on Dr. Google!
There is a drop of Kevin in every one of us who is exposed to the internet. We will opt to self-diagnose at the expense of seeking proper medical help. Kevin was lucky but the next person who ends up repeating his actions may not have the same good fortune and could probably making a fatal error by a misdiagnosis.
The Cyberchondria ailment
Psychologists in the early 2000s came up with a term for the internet- induced anxiety which they called Cyberchondria. This is basically a condition that stems from obsessively search the internet for health conditions combined with deep seated fears of contracting various diseases along with anxiety brought about by those fears and search results. Cyberchondria is a term coined from Hypochondria which refers to an excessive concern over health leading to an obsessive search for answers.
How do you know if you suffer from Cyberchondria? You are online everyday seeking health information sometimes even 1-3 hours daily, you get really anxious on ailments you may have, you fear having illnesses which could lead you to thinking you have 2-5 illnesses based on internet searches, you check more than once daily, and you find out that you have no illness most of the time and that your health is stable.
Is there a safe way to search for health information?
A 2015 research by the Harvard Medical School revealed that only 51% of online diagnosis are accurate. This means that half of the information that Internet users get online is true. It is not worth it therefore being anxious about a diagnosis made because of searching symptoms that one may have.
There is no absolutely no harm in seeking medical information from the internet. Indeed, one can gather great tips on healthy living and understanding the origin and management of various medical and mental conditions. It is however important to remember that Dr. Google is not a trained medical professional. He / She has not attended any medical school, have no bachelor’s degree or diploma. Hence, one should be smart enough to realize that the information gained online may not be entirely true.
You can google your symptoms but do not obsess over them but rather treat them as an ‘idea’ of what you may be ailing from and hence a basis of discussion during your hospital visit to ask the right questions and sometimes to even get the right tests that will reveal the ultimate truth.
Other tips are to ensure that you only use trusted sites such as Web MD among others, do not read only one diagnosis and make a conclusion based on it, do not stress about your imagined diagnosis which could read to anxiety and even emergence of ‘new symptoms’ that could only be in the mind.
Lastly, users should always seek the opinion of a medical expert as a final result. Health professionals are well trained to make a diagnosis, and to make an informed management and treatment options.