Cyberchondria: A New Media Syndrome

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Cyberchondria: The New Media Syndrome
By Dana June Ballais Alcazar

Have you ever tried to find a treatment for a really bad flu on Google? How about a persistent pimple that won’t go away? Has your throat hurt really badly that you decided to search for instant relief through the internet? Then you’re one of the millions who self-diagnose. Trying to name what kind of medical problem one has by using books, medical dictionaries, past personal or non personal experiences, the internet, or even software applications, is called self-diagnosis. With the wealth of information from the information superhighway, anyone of any age can readily access health related information through the new media. Innovative handy digital devices make information access as convenient as breathing. Data is a finger tap away. Although there are no current statistics as to the number of Filipino internet users who self-diagnose, this issue is certainly a reality. In fact, as a result of the said issue, a new condition has emerged — Cyberchondria.

What is Cyberchondria?
According to Wikipedia, Cyberchondria is the result of internet research on health related issues. It refers to the baseless increase of a person’s anxiety because of the online medical information he or she has gathered. The term is coined from the prefix “cyber” which pertains to anything of computers, information systems, virtual reality and the Internet (Encarta, 2009), and the psychological condition called hypochondria. People with hypochondria are preoccupied with their health and claim to feel real symptoms. They believe that they have a serious illness but upon the doctor’s examination, there is no objective evidence of the illness they claim to have. The British Medical Journal publication "Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry" in 2003 said that the word cyberchondria was first used in a British newspaper to refer to the use of the internet health websites to add to anxiety about health. Since the term hypochondria carries with it a rather offensive connotation, research studies have clarified that because the said word means “excessive concern about health”, cyberchondria is simply “online concern about health”.

Cyberchondria and Search Engines
Microsoft, a leading multinational computer industry that offers software, video game products, and online service conducted a comprehensive research in 2008 on cyberchondria and search engines like Google and Yahoo. Researchers Ryen White and Eric Horvitz concluded that if someone who does not have proper training and education in medicine searches the web about a symptom he or she has, they will most probably have increased anxiety. Aside from the escalation of worry, another result is the waste of time and money because of unnecessary doctor visits. The study also revealed that people who find medical information about their symptom online neglect to study all other options but rather focus on the first few results of the search. Among the 500 respondents that they questioned, nine out of ten admit that after researching on a minor symptom online, they were led to research about a much worse medical illness. They also found out that most users that self-diagnose online thought that the search results that appear are ranked according to the probability of them having that disease. This is actually not the real case since search engines rank search results according to computerized mathematic procedures called algorithms. Results are ranked according to how many times the searched word is found on the web page, the number of mouse clicks a web page receives and the number of other website links on the page.

What causes Cyberchondria?
Researchers and doctors alike have come up with reasons why online users have the tendency to develop cyberchondria. 1. Dr. Stephanie Bown, director of policy and communication of the Medical Protection Society, the leading provider of comprehensive professional...
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