Cyberchondria refers to the practice of using Internet search engines to wrongly diagnose oneself with serious illnesses. In this piece we originally aired in 2009, Carolyn Butler, columnist for The Washington Post talks about how cyberchondria came to be and she discusses her own bout with the dread disease.
BOB GARFIELD: Zittrain says that companies like Apple should let users make their own decisions, rather than relying on a gatekeeper to tell them what’s good for them. Of course, there are times on the Web where the absence of gatekeepers has created serious maladies. Take cyberchondria. That’s when people use Internet search engines to diagnose themselves wrongly with terrible illnesses.
In 2005, we spoke to Washington Post columnist Carolyn Butler. She had written about her recent bout of cyberchondria.
CAROLYN BUTLER: You have the sort of common things that come up, like too much caffeine, being tired, looking at the computer for too long but, of course, I glossed right over all of those and headed to the big guns – MS and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
BOB GARFIELD: Because one of the characteristics of cyberchondria being that the more research you do, the sicker you discover you are or may be.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Yes, I mean, I think it’s a pretty common occurrence. When you have a common symptom, you go online to do a little bit of research and you are confronted with all of this information. It’s sort of information overload. Some of it is good, some of it is not so good but the more you read, you know, of what’s out there, the more your anxiety grows and the more you end up convincing yourself that it’s a far more serious situation than it’s likely to be. So a headache turns into a brain tumor or, you know, reaching for a word turns into Alzheimer's.
BOB GARFIELD: So you realized early on that you, in fact, were a victim of the tragedy of cyberchondria, and you discovered that others had actually documented this very syndrome. Tell me who has looked into this and what they discovered.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Yes, so there are two researchers out at Microsoft Research who decided to conduct a pretty serious large-scale longitudinal study to see how people really did conduct their medical research online, and they found that about a third of those who were doing medical-related searches escalated their searches in this way.
BOB GARFIELD: The whole notion of cyberchondria kind of challenges what hitherto had been a couple of articles of faith. One is that patients should be their own advocates.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: And the other is that more information is always better than less information.
CAROLYN BUTLER: A couple of people that I spoke to for this article compared cyberchondria to this idea of medical school students having something called second-year syndrome, which is in their second year they have all of this book information, but they don't yet have the sort of clinical practice, that there is this same phenomenon. Basically all medical students end up convincing themselves that they have some, you know, rare skin disease or disorder.
BOB GARFIELD: I've had this experience twice. Ten years ago I got it from car dealers who would look at me with exasperation as I came in with more information than they'd bargained on.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Uh-huh.
BOB GARFIELD: And they'd say, yeah, you've been on the Internet, haven't you? Well, and now I'm getting it from my general practitioner -[LAUGHS]
- who, you know, has figured out it’s the same thing.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Yep. I think this is probably the bane of a doctor’s existence. I had this with my OB when I was pregnant recently. He sort of told me to step away from Google, that it was not my friend.
BOB GARFIELD: Ma'am, step away from the computer. Step away from the computer!
CAROLYN BUTLER: I think a lot of doctors would agree.
BOB GARFIELD: If you extrapolate from the findings of the Microsoft research, it seems to me what you would have to conclude is that the Internet has made us a society of the worried well maybe making themselves [LAUGHS] sick from worry.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Mm-hmm. Also, cost-wise it’s costing our health care system a lot of money, perhaps driving people to visit their doctors or hospitals unnecessarily, to do tests that aren't needed, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, I just want to get back to your eye tic [CAROLYN LAUGHS], where we began this conversation. I'm going to just make a wild guess that the diagnosis did not turn out to be Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Shockingly, I do not have MS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It turned out I did, actually, after all of this Web surfing, go in to visit my doctor to see what he thought, and we figured out that I was actually allergic to a new eye cream. So, I'm going to be okay.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Carolyn?
CAROLYN BUTLER: Yes?
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you so much.
CAROLYN BUTLER: Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Carolyn Butler is a columnist for The Washington Post.