Online symptom checking–referred to as Dr. Google–where you enter whatever is ailing you and get a list of what may be causing the problem is popular.Many people love Googling things like “foods to detox” or “stress management techniques.”

In my opinion, this is a good way to get information about a variety of health issues so you can make informed decisions.

As massage therapists, you are usually happy when a client takes the time to research the various types of massages available. This makes it easier for you to tailor the best massage for them.

But sometimes people use the web for looking into more serious issues, like diseases.

Online symptom checking–often referred to as Dr. Google–where you simply enter whatever is ailing you and get a likely long list of what may be causing the problem, are some of the most popular activity on the Internet.

Medical sites are so popular that various studies estimate that over 90 percent of us have used them at one time or another to ask about everything from the common cold, stiff joints and migraines to specific diseases such as lupus, depression and cancer.

There are a wide variety of sites to choose from, including the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, WebMD and familydoctor.org.

While all the online symptom checkers are different in terms of design and functionality, the basic idea behind them all is that you choose a body part (such as your arm) and symptoms (such as an itchy rash) and then follow prompts to help the platform give you some diagnostic suggestions.

Might You Be a Cyberchondriac?

While the general consensus among healthcare providers is that these sites can play a role in helping you be proactive about managing your health, using them too often or visiting less-than-reputable sites can do you more harm than good.

In fact, overuse of these checkers has spawned a new term, cyberchondriac, which is a twist on hypochondriac. According to experts, cyberchondriacs search the web excessively, and sometimes obsessively, for healthcare information.

People who suffer from this ailment have a tendency to interpret normal variations or changes in how their bodies function as being a symptom of a major and perhaps even life-threatening disease.

For example, a cyberchondriac will enter headache and then may end the session convinced beyond a doubt that the headache is being caused by a tumor.

The pitfalls of falling into this type of online behavior and the risks it presents to your health are clear.

One is that you may start to believe that every cough or rash is indicative of something serious. And as you continue to search, each click magnifies your fears and you start to search more for something that will definitely confirm your supposed disease.

Or you may start to frantically search for something that tells you that you’ll be fine if you try some new, unproven home remedy.

Neither is good for taking care of your health, since the former could result in unnecessary trips to the doctor, expensive medical tests and stress, while the latter could convince you to not seek any medical advice or treatment at all when it is truly needed.

Neither extreme promotes good health.

Take This Quiz

According to a paper by the New York State Psychiatric Institute, here are some telltale signs that your online symptom checking has led to cyberchondria:

  • You check online for symptom information for up to one to three hours per day
  • On your worst day, you’ve checked three to four times a day
  • You fear having several different diseases
  • Looking online to get symptom information makes you feel more anxious
  • Your health is actually medically stable

If any of the above applies to your online behavior, your best bet is to go cold turkey and stop checking.

Think of it like quitting smoking or taking a social media detox.

Dr. Google and the Proper Role

Despite some initial–and ongoing–concerns and misgivings about online symptom checkers, healthcare experts and providers are in agreement that they are here to stay. They also agree that their popularity and use will only continue to increase. So how can you get the most benefit from them?

Doctors unanimously agree that partnering with their patients who are well-prepared for appointments usually results in more productive discussions and better treatment outcomes. So, use the information you have gathered from online symptom checkers and resources to prepare yourself ahead of time and to know what questions to ask.

Do the following to maximize the benefit of your appointment:

Prioritize and prepare. Think about what is bothering you most. Being prepared with the issues you want to bring up will get you more of what you want, and the doctor will have an easier time understanding exactly what your concerns are.

Be organized. Clearly define your most important health issues and goals, ideally in order of importance. Just randomly talking about any health complaints as they come to mind can be confusing for everyone.

Most doctors have to work in time-pressed clinical settings, and generally have to weed out what the main issues are in order to help you. Organizing helps you get better answers, faster.

Be specific. Specific questions, such as, “Do patients ever have long-term side effects from CT scan dye?” or “At my age, what are the possible risks of having general anesthesia?” will convey your concerns more clearly and open up a discussion, as opposed to only saying, “I don’t want to do that.”

Instead of saying, “I don’t like prescription medications,” try being more specific, such as, “I’d really like to try taking yoga classes three times per week. If I still feel depressed, I will try the antidepressants.” Let your doctor know what your plan is and why you’d like to try something else. This keeps the line of communication open.

By using online symptom checkers and other health care sites appropriately, you can enhance both your relationship with your doctor and maximize the value of your own steps to protect your health.

 

Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs, a national non-profit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is Minerals – The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy, available through Amazon, iTunes and bookstores. She wrote “Mineral Research that Does Not Lie” for massagemag.com.

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