There are few questions we can ask ourselves that are not already answered on the Internet. For better or worse, there is an answer to almost everything on the web, from how to plan a bachelorette party to the best natural remedy for toothaches. So, when doubts assail us, especially if they are related to our health, the first thing we do is turn to ‘Dr. Google’. It’s easy, he’s close at hand, and he generally calms us down, because he makes us feel (falsely) in control of the situation.
However, it is a behavior that can entail risks. “Although information obtained on the Internet related to health can be helpful for self-care and maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, it is sometimes not entirely accurate or is presented in language that is excessively technical and difficult to interpret out of context. health, which can cause confusion. Other times, it contradicts scientific evidence and promulgates potentially dangerous behaviors, from interrupting the treatment of a disease that is suffered to inviting us to make a miracle diet, “warns Marta Martínez del Valle, information secretary of the Spanish Society of General Practitioners and of Family (SEMG).
It can also happen that one ends up on websites where “there are people who, without being health professionals, include information about very general symptoms, such as a headache, to market some false remedy and enrich themselves at the expense of the evil of others,” adds the psychologist Sherezade Márquez Martínez, member of the Bizkaia College of Psychologists.
“Confirmation bias leads us to stick with the worst ‘diagnosis’ we find”
Scheherazade Marquez Martinez
Even so, almost all of us have turned to the Internet to clear up our doubts about a symptom that worries us. In fact, 43.7% of Spaniards admit that they self-diagnose on the Internet, according to the ‘IV Health and Lifestyle Study’, prepared by Aegon Seguros.
Doing this type of search does not have to be a problem, as long as it does not interfere with daily life. If it does, we would speak of digital hypochondria or cyberchondria, a disorder characterized by obsessive concern for health that leads a person to continually seek information about symptoms, ailments or diseases to put a name to what happens to him, or what he believes what happens to him
Symptoms that are exaggerated
“The hypochondriac patient tends to misinterpret any sensation considered normal, such as bowel sounds; or that it constitutes a minor symptom of any process, such as having a body temperature of 37.5 ºC. In these cases, they interpret it as an unequivocal sign of a serious illness that can put his life at risk, and that leads them to constantly consult the Internet for possible causes. If, in addition, they are people who have already been diagnosed with some organic disease, either acute or chronic, their level of concern is such that they present a degree of anxiety much higher than that of a psychologically healthy person,” says Martínez del Valle.
The problem is that the search process can be as infinite as there are pages on the web, which leads some people to spend their lives checking what is happening to them. “There are those who stop going to work or leaving home in case they run out of Internet and cannot carry out these checks,” warns Márquez Martínez.
It can happen to anyone and at any age, although “the most common profile of the digital hypochondriac is a person between 30 and 50 years old,” says the primary care doctor. By gender, the Aegon study highlights that women are the ones who carry out the most Internet searches about health, registering a difference of ten points between both genders (48.6% of them compared to 38.6% of them). By autonomies, Navarra heads the list of regions in Spain where more searches of this type are carried out. Basque Country and La Rioja are at the bottom.
Percentage of searches on ailments and diseases on the Internet by region. /
It is mainly consulted about occasional symptoms or pain, followed by minor or punctual illnesses, chronic or recurrent illnesses and psychological symptoms, according to data obtained by Aegon. Chronic pathologies are the ones that most interest respondents over 60 years of age, while mental health generates more searches among young people between 18 and 25 years of age.
Percentage of searches on the Internet according to the type of ailments and diseases. /
What do the elderly consult?
This trend has also led to a rebound in self-medication in Spain. The Aegon report highlights that 24% of Spaniards self-medicate, 1.3% more than in 2020. Almost half of them attribute this to knowing what the doctor is going to prescribe, based on the symptoms they experience, while the rest justify it with the fact that they self-medicate to treat minor illnesses or because of the difficulty of getting an appointment at the doctor due to the long waiting lists.
As a consequence, the trust and credibility of health professionals is called into question. “Having so much information makes us believe that we know more than doctors, but we must be careful, because when we look for answers on the Internet about something that worries us, confirmation bias arises, that is, even if we find fifty diagnoses different from the symptoms we have, unconsciously we look and we stay with the most dramatic, because the emotion that moves us is anguish, whether that is what happens to us or not, ”warns Márquez Martínez.
– How can we stop this behaviour?
– In the event of any health problem that worries us, the person who can help us is our primary care doctor, who is the one who can carry out the examinations and techniques necessary to reach a diagnosis in the cases that are required. For our part, as doctors, we must seek quality communication, trying to get the patient to acquire the necessary confidence so that they ask us all their doubts and resolve them with an understandable language that allows them to leave the consultation satisfied -Martínez del Valle points out-.
This is especially important in the uncertain times in which we live. “The pandemic has caused an increase in health hoaxes and has generated an alarming infoxication in the general population, something that has especially affected people who are psychologically less stable, such as hypochondriacs,” adds the doctor.
How to find quality information
In case of consulting the Internet the possible ailments that we have, the recommendation of the specialists is to try to get the most reliable information possible. For this, there are several options. For example, the websites of scientific societies, those of patient associations, those of collegiate medical organizations or those of national or international organizations, such as the website of the Ministry of Health, those of the Ministries of Health or that of the World Organization of Health (WHO), are some useful alternatives.
The text must be endorsed and signed by experts in the field, indicate the bibliography that supports it and clearly differentiate the advertising information from that which is not.
In addition, they ask the media, in any of their formats, to publish reliable and verified information and to avoid sensational news, which can cause great harm and mistrust to the population.