Cyberchondria is a disease we need to eradicate

Healthcare PR practitioners need to find a remedy for a nation suffering from rampant cyberchondria.

Well, it had to be named eventually. The only surprise is that it has taken so long. Cyberchondria, the online equivalent of hypochondria, a heightened anxiety about one's health brought on by the overuse of online medical sites, is apparently an epidemic and coming to a computer near you.

To be honest, it has been around for years. It just took American psychologist Dr Thomas Fergus of Baylor University in Texas writing last month in that well-known rag, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, and widely reported in the tabloids and broadsheets, to name it.

OK, so cyberchondria may be a bit of a joke, but at its base it reflects an increasing desire among much of our population to take back more control of their health and healthcare.

Health is now one of the most common reasons people access the web and for a good, but unhappy fact: they no longer trust the medical profession to take care of them.

Unlike the Americans who take universal access to this as a right, we in the UK and the rest of Europe have been slow on the uptake, still preferring to trust the paternal style of our doctor, not.doc or.med.

But things are changing fast. The truth is cyberchondria is the price we pay for having relatively unfettered access to huge amounts of medical information, free of professional medical filters.

For medical communicators this has significant implications. For one thing it means we have been (and this word really should be in a medical dictionary) disintermediated.

If the patient no longer puts his or her trust in their doctor, why on earth would they listen to what we in the chattering medical world have to say?

Far better to go straight to Wikipedia then mull it over with the people we really trust - our family and friends.

But what cyberchondria tells us is that for many, access and understanding do not sit side by side.

Mums may want to make sure they have the most up to date information on Harry or Kiera's latest fluorescent infestation, but what they don't get is the bigger picture.

Sure, a three-week cough could be a sign of lung cancer, but common things are commonest and in all probability it is viral.

In this new socially connected world of menacing always-on microbes and rampant medical acronyms, what the worried well and unwell alike really need are interpreters, not just encyclopaedias.

The medical media will never be totally trusted and ethically we can't place ourselves in the smouldering holes left by the healthcare practitioner. But we can act as signposts and sounding boards to a patient population at constant risk of taking it all a bit too literally.

In an age of reference over deference, cyberchondria can be one disease we communicators should help stamp out.

Dr Martin Godfrey is managing director of 3 Monkeys Communications Health and Wellness, and a south London GP.

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