Is Google Making Us Sick?

The internet can help you make educated decisions about your health. It can also turn a headache into a brain tumour. Sometimes there's no substitute for a doctor.

By Katherine Laidlaw, Reader's Digest Canada, September 2013
Ben Tardif

(All illustrations by Ben Tardif)

It always began the same way—an ache, say, or stomach pains while strolling across campus to her dorm. Soon enough, Emma Murray*, a first-year psychology student at McGill University in Montreal, would open her laptop, type her symptom into Google and read and read and read. She’d switch between medical websites—Mayo Clinic, MedlinePlus, WebMD—and compare warning signs until a twinge on the side of her face signalled a stroke. She’d stumble across a forum and discover her fatigue was the onset of lupus or, no, multiple sclerosis. God, did she have Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands? When her dread became unbearable—when, after clicking through endless symptom checklists, every sensation seemed a death sentence—she’d stop. She was okay, she would tell herself. She’d shut her laptop and curl up in bed, pictures of friends and family on the walls of her room. She was okay. But she couldn’t sleep. She was never sure.

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Many aren’t. According to Statistics Canada, nearly 65 per cent of Canadians use the Internet to search for health information. Some studies suggest, however, that the onslaught of advice may put one in 20 of those Googlers at risk of becoming “cyberchondriacs”—people obsessed with the idea of being stricken by diseases they find online. While the Internet can be a useful misconception-clearing tool, the nature of search results—where the highest-ranked sites are a measure of attention paid to those particular pages—can also make it easy to find the most dire, and least probable, explanation for your symptoms. Cyberchondria is not an official medical condition, yet a growing body of research now files it under the same heading as hypochondria—the constant and excessive fear of serious illness. Indeed, according to the symptoms in the newly released fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), cyberchondria is an illness anxiety disorder. No one’s sure what causes it. Hereditary disposition and environment seem to be factors. In most cases, it’s triggered by a serious illness or a death in the family.

Murray’s anxieties began at 13, right after her mother died. Her teenage years were a blur of grief, stress and dramatic, inexplicable symptoms: pounding headaches, severe pains. Her doctors told her it was all in her head, dismissing her constant requests for blood tests until she was eventually diagnosed with an ovarian cyst and hospitalized. That only made things worse. She stopped being able to tell real pain from imagined, and started to panic. “When you’re anxious,” she says, “your body can make you feel a lot of things that aren’t necessarily happening.” But on the Internet, her fears seemed well-founded. There was always a website she could turn to that would confirm something was wrong.

Worrywarts have been diagnosing themselves for hundreds of years, basing their false convictions of illness on circulating medical theories. In his 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy, which collected the period’s prominent philosophical and scientific ideas, English scholar Robert Burton described many of the hypochondria symptoms (“heat in the bowels, wind and grumbling in the guts”) that gripped Europeans at the time. “Some are afraid that they shall have every fearful disease they see others have, hear of, or read,” he wrote, “and dare not therefore hear or read of any such subject.” The difference today is that our phobias can feed on a vast amount of data, much of it unvetted, and all of it just a keystroke away. Patients once limited to scouring medical textbooks now have clinical trials, specialized forums, Facebook groups and Twitter feeds. Another difference? Online pharmacies mean patients can opt to take matters—and powerful medication—into their own hands.

Canadians don’t need to be cyberchondriacs to put themselves in danger; they just need to trust the wrong information. While the Internet has been an empowering force, health-care professionals wonder if the countless hours patients spend online may be doing more harm than good.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Next: Why you need to check the sources of
medical information you find online

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