Hypochondriac 2.0 - News and Information Week


Photo courtesy of NobMouse.

An apple a day has traditionally kept the doctor away, but in the age of constant contact, ‘Web MD’ has started to become an even better source of preventative care. For some people, online medical resources are developing into the end all be all when it comes to not only precautionary health guidelines, but also diagnosing illness and ascertaining appropriate remedies. Upgraded information certainly has its perks, but perhaps in a problematic way, this heightened availability of therapy has turned some of us into worry warts verging on the edge of hypochondria.

Is that a freckle or cancer? A cramp…or cancer? Sprained ankle? Cancer?

David K. Ahern, Ph.D., is the director of the Health Information Technology Resource Center (HITRC) at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor of Psychology (Psychiatry) at Harvard Medical School. His research includes extensive study on how to fully exploit opportunities to use computers for health care delivery, and he’s also worked with others to examine the effects of the Internet on those diagnosed with acute body awareness disorders like hypochondria. For Ahern, the Internet can be a very powerful and effective tool in not only managing routine health care, but in outsourcing solutions to malady.

“It’s evolving, as we speak,” he explains. “Where the web originally had been primarily a resource for health information used by a small group of people, online health information now is largely used by most people. Seventy-four percent of adults have evolved into not only using the Internet to access information, but more instrumentally in making health decisions. The primary source is still physicians, but close behind it is the Internet.”

On the other hand, Ahern does believe the web creates psychological roadblocks for those unnerved by hypersensitive body cognizance. The risk of misdiagnosing a problem becomes even higher when you can’t get it out of your head, and consequently consult too many places without considering who your new found physician really is. Accordingly, Ahern has also done testing in how to reduce hypochondria symptoms in such Internet mavens through therapy structures, many of which may be helpful to those of us who are gravitating in this direction.

“Some patients who are prone to have high sensitivity to the body… become more alarmed the more they use the Internet,” says the professor. “They are likely to make a cognitive error and to over-interpret a sensation in body as a medical disease.”

The challenge, remarks Ahern, is to give people with this heightened attention to their body a distraction. Refocus interest from the problem to something else. Another strategy is what he refers to as “normalization.” As most of us routinely experience strange bodily sensations that have no explanation, those with hypochondria dwell on the negative and make it more than it is. Now, with the web offering so many varying diagnoses, Ahern has to convince patients to discount their overreactions.

“One person may disregard that sensation whereas another will think they had a spine burst,” he explains.

The solution can be a simple as finding a way to relax and ease the stress.

For the rest of us, sticking to a good source may be enough to stifle any unnecessary fretting over that funny feeling inside us. Ahern’s general rule of thumb in selecting legitimate medical sites is sticking to those run by the government, sources like the National Institute of Heath and the Centers for Disease Control offer a range of consumer and professional resources. He also says to make sure you can tell who’s giving you the tips.

“If you can’t determine who’s behind the content then you have to wonder,” comments Ahern.

Wonder or agonize, don’t jump to any conclusions at the very least.