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Is Dr. Google Making You Anxious? You May Have ‘Cyberchondria’

About 1 percent of all searches on Google — representing tens of millions of inquiries a day — are symptom-related. But even the search giant admitted in a blog post that health content on the web can be hard to decipher and “tends to lead people from mild symptoms to scary and unlikely conditions, which can cause unnecessary anxiety and stress.”

New research has now coined a term for this self-inflicted anxiety from relying too much on ‘Dr. Google.’ Call it cyberchondria. It’s a hybrid term that combines “cyberspace” with hypochondria, which refers to people who are abnormally anxious about their health.

A team of researchers from Imperial College London and King’s College London found that symptoms of health anxiety were often mistaken for those of an actual physical illness, which included chest pains and persistent headaches. These anxieties led to expensive and unnecessary medical appointments and clinical tests, the study found.

“Most of the information online is not complete, and relying too much on this information is what drives cyberchondria,” said David Mishkin, M.D. [1], medical director for Baptist Health’s Care On Demand [2], a platform that provides patients with immediate online access to a Board-certified doctor via an app.

Even Google makes a point to warn its search engine users that medical-related data on the web is “intended for informational purposes only and you should always consult a doctor.”

Dr. Mishkin, an emergency room physician, gives this example: “If you have a headache and you look up possible causes you are often steered towards very dangerous conditions, such as a stroke, infection, or tumor, when in reality the majority of headaches are not life-threatening at all. That is why I always encourage patients to consult with a physician first before making an incorrect self-diagnosis that can only lead to unwarranted anxiety and stress”.

Baptist Health is planning to expand its Care On Demand virtual platform, which has had more than 10,000 downloads since it first launched in August 2016. The virtual platform offers patients a Florida-licensed physician around the clock. Patients can consult with a board-certified physician regarding minor illnesses for a flat rate of $59 on a computer, tablet or smartphone.

A typical Care On Demand session lasts on average five to seven minutes. Physicians can also treat children and young adults ages 2 to 18 with parental supervision. Patients can upload photos through the app to provide doctors with more precise information on, for example, rashes or minor burns.

Care On Demand is part of a growing national trend that is seeing health systems become more interactive with their patients — and help avoid over self-diagnosing with Dr. Google, says Dr. Mishkin.

“Patients are more inquisitive and now they have all the resources at hand with the Internet,” says Dr. Mishkin. “Care on Demand is a resource to help alleviate some of that cyberchondria. Instead of searching ‘Dr. Google,’ you can look us up and talk to a real doctor online about your condition. That’s a vital role we can provide to the community.”

A positive side of the Internet’s growing role in healthcare: Patients who are “more informed than ever,” he said.

“Even before they come to the emergency room or their doctor’s office, a lot of patients have done their homework,” says Dr. Mishkin. “So now you’re seeing hospitals are trying to provide more accurate information through their websites, apps and other online resources to meet the demand for healthcare information and better educate their communities. We want to continue empowering patients.”