Are you a cyberchondriac? According to a Harris Poll, you are if you are one of the 160 million Americans that uses the Web to search for health care information. While we are happy to learn of so many informed consumers, we think that the term cyberchondriac is bit of a misnomer given that it is a neologism coined from the words “cyber” and “hypochondriac.” It’s probably unfair to categorize most health care searchers as hypochondriacs – by and large, most of these people would be better called “informed medical consumers.”
With Web access, people can find research and information about health matters and medical conditions. Information about medication and its side effects is readily available. Support groups and message boards allow people with rare or life-threatening conditions to interact with others. Is there a downside to having so much information readily available to all? Some doctors might say yes. As the old saying goes, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” People who are not trained experts may misinterpret complicated medical data. Plus, not all online sources are accurate or reputable, and consumers can be careless about separating the wheat from the chaff.
There’s also the phenomena of disease mongering, or ” … the selling of sickness that widens the boundaries of illness and grows the markets for those who sell and deliver treatments.” As direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising became more prevalent, consumers were hit with any number of frightening conditions they had never previously heard of, from restless legs to toenail fungus. The power of suggestion can be strong, as any marketer will attest. While disease mongering is not exactly a new phenomena – witness the traveling medicine shows of the last century – television and the Web have given messages a broader reach. Years ago, we worried about our breath and whether we had dandruff. That seems almost quaint now as we are encouraged to tend to the state of our esophagus and determine whether or not our bowels are irritable.
The real thing
But what of the real cyberchodndriacs? There’s quite a continuum between the average person who Googles for some medical information and the person for whom it is an obsession, and at the far end of the spectrum there are some very troubled people. The word “cyber” can be distracting, it’s really just the 21st century wired version of the hypochondriac that has been an archetype for most of recorded history. The information-at-your-fingertips access that the Web affords simply allows the hypochondriac to obsess a little more.
Ongoing, chronic complaints about health may indeed be a signal of an undiagnosed medical condition. But, often, preoccupation with health and illness is a red flag for depression, anxiety, or phobia. Hypochondria is not actually about the physical but the mental and can be a very debilitating problem, which has been described as not feeling safe in your own body. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, hypochondriacs may be convinced that they have a serious illness. The good news is that it is a condition that can be successfully treated with therapy.
The Mayo Clinic has some great resources on hypochondria. The list the common symptoms of hypochondria as:
- Excessive fear or anxiety about having a particular disease or condition
- Worry that minor symptoms mean you have a serious illness
- Seeking repeated medical exams or consultations
- “Doctor shopping,” or frequently switching doctors
- Frustration with doctors or medical care
- Strained social relationships
- Obsessive health research
- Emotional distress
- Frequent checking of your body for problems, such as lumps or sores
- Frequent checking of vital signs, such as pulse or blood pressure
- Inability to be reassured by good medical exams
- Thinking you have a disease after reading or hearing about it
- Avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious, such as being in a hospital
HR managers and line supervisors really don’t have to be concerned about discerning who in the work force is a bit of a fanatic Googler and who is a hypochondriac. The real barometer is performance and any performance changes or inhibitors. When an employee’s life problems begin affecting performance, that’s when an EAP can be most effective.