Nagging ache in the heel after your morning jog? Period late by a week and there’s no way you could be pregnant? Worried that your new tattoo is getting infected? Sudden dizzy spell as you’re reading this? 

Chances are you’re already opening a new tab to Google your symptoms (if you haven’t already!) Welcome to Cyberchondria.

If you’ve ever stressed over “What is happening to me?” before visiting a doctor, you know that there is a whole buffet of medical information out there, ranging from the accurate to the bogus, and everything in between. According to a 2013 Health Online study, 35% of adults in the US resorted to the Internet to diagnose a medical condition, with about half following up with an actual visit to the clinician.

An online poll conducted by Connected Health Quarterly showed that 68% of the respondents always Google their symptoms before making an appointment, and 27% are at least tempted to, some of the time. 

8 out of 10 claimed that it really is helpful, whereas opinion on the confusion potential and unhelpfulness is equally divided.

So how do you ride the information wave just right?

Symptom seekers have their pick of websites describing ailments from the everyday-type to the obscure. The trouble is, you could go from being mildly afflicted to clinically dead in three clicks of the mouse. So how do you ensure that the information you are consuming is correct and responsible?

The HON Code:

This little icon is your friend.

The icon, called the HON (Health on the Net) code, represents the current most wide-spread agency of validation or accreditation of Health websites. The website that bears this icon (usually at the bottom or bottom right of the first page) has to abide by 8 ethical principles of conduct for the duration of the website’s certification. These include Authority, Attribution, Justifiability, and Transparency among others.

Top Health Websites

WebMD has consistently topped the list of most popular accredited websites for health related information. In addition, Medline Plus, Medicine Net, the NIH, the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic websites are accessed by a multitude of symptom seekers and approved by medical professionals in India and abroad. Closer to home, physicians recommend UPTODATE, an evidence-based patient education platform that is written and curated by doctors.

Sometimes health information comes in the form of videos. Whereas this medium has gained immense popularity over the last decade, research has indicated a dearth of credible healthcare resources despite the large number of health-related videos, given the lack of a systematic screening or regulatory tool.

Symptom-checker Tools

Symptom-checker tools (such as iTriage, Symcat) are hosted by medical schools, hospital systems, insurance companies, and the NHS. The software asks users to list their symptoms using multiple choice checklists or free text entry. The algorithm collates the information and returns a list of potential illnesses that might be at the root of the symptoms and suggests whether the patient should seek immediate care, or consult a doctor in a few days’ time, or rest at home.

A Harvard Medical School-led research study on the accuracy of general-purpose symptom checkers found that although the online programs are often wrong, they are roughly equivalent to telephone triage lines used at some primary care practices. Symptom-checkers perform better than general Internet-search self-diagnosis and triage. According to the researchers, symptom-checker tools would, at the most, be useful to help patients decide whether they need to take themselves to a clinic right away or not, but the findings are not to be taken as ‘gospel.’ This play-it-safe attitude underlying symptom-checkers leads to in-person medical opinion being sought anyway. The online tools, however, are here to stay.

Birth of Cyberchondria

Health education websites can help create educated healthcare consumers. They can even make better communicators out of patients. But sometimes the phenomenon goes too far — the internet is notorious for making hypochondriacs out of people (a hypochondriac is a person who continually stresses over an imagined illness with an exaggeration of symptoms no matter how insignificant). Such “Cyberchondriacs” are showing up more and more in clinics worldwide.

Healthcare consumers should thus be careful to seek out information that is curated, regulated, and scientifically validated.

Meghana Joshi is a Biomedical Sciences major and writer, specializing in Science Communication. She has run her own socio-environmental venture to promote natural products, fostered abandoned animals, and co-authored ‘ROOMIES/FOODIES,’ a memoir-plus-recipe book for Indian students abroad. She now is Lead, Content Creation at Almata and is based in Pune, India.