Is ‘Doctor Google’ creating digital hypochondriacs?
Technological innovation, widespread access to the internet and adoption of digital devices over the past few decades has made finding healthcare information easier than ever.
More people than ever are invested in their healthcare and are engaging online. In some cases, this leads to self-diagnosis. Used for this purpose, search engines, social media platforms and online forums have been collectively labelled by the healthcare community as ‘Doctor Google.’
In a recent survey of over 1,500 Australians, MedicalDirector found that 72% of people are using Doctor Google as a way to address their health issues. The behaviour of seeking information online is in lieu of visiting a doctor for professional advice. 35% of these people use Doctor Google up to 5 times a month. This can pose a challenge for the healthcare community and patients alike.
The pros and cons of self-diagnosis
The information a patient finds can act as a starting point towards a deeper, more meaningful conversation about their health. It can also result in a more transparent relationship with their doctor, if the information is openly shared. Both parties can benefit from a patient’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
However, there is strong evidence of a connection between heavy use of Doctor Google and heightened levels of anxiety and stress. In our survey, we found 60% of people were convinced they had an illness after Googling their symptoms (these people found out their ‘illness’ was something else later on). 38% were absolutely convinced they had a terminal or life-threatening illness.
Digital hypochondriacs and the pitfall of confirmation bias
Difficulties can begin when a person goes straight to Doctor Google. If they believe their symptoms are of a threatening nature, they could be heavily susceptible to confirmation bias and may only seek out the information that confirms their worst beliefs.
Genuine ‘digital hypochondria’ takes shape when patients don’t get a clear, balanced or objective point of view on their symptoms from a healthcare professional. Without professional diagnosis, the information can escalate feelings of apprehension. Especially if the information they’re consuming isn’t reliable.
Use of Doctor Google by patients can go both ways
Depending on a person’s symptoms, emotional disposition, what they’ve seen and/or read, ‘Dr Google’ can be the beginnings of ‘digital hypochondria’. While 34% of the Australians we surveyed ended up feeling calmer after carrying out online research 16% of Australians felt more anxious and stressed.
At the end of the day, the key to managing these challenges is acceptance, transparency and openness. Because, embracing Dr. Google can lead to better patient health literacy.