A new study published by researchers at Imperial College, London, has led to renewed warnings of relying on the Internet for medical advice.

Previous research has shown that up to one in five hospital outpatients could suffer from health related anxiety. However, with an increasing number of people using online symptom checkers and forums to diagnose themselves, the prevalence of psychological issues because of this – dubbed cyberchondria – is on the rise.

A significant amount of research has documented the rise of cyberchondria. One such study looked at the symptom checking of 515 individuals and found significant correlation between searching for common, minor symptoms and gravitating towards more serious illnesses.

Research performed by Microsoft confirmed this trend, finding that in 1 in 4 cases of using a search engine to look up the cause of a headache, a page within the top 10 mentioned the possibility of a brain tumour. This compares to the probability of developing a brain tumour, which is less than 1 in 10,000 every year.

Users were then found to continue searching specifically for the symptoms and signs of brain tumours, understandably leading to increased stress levels. However, the problem was also shown to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As more people connect headaches and brain tumours, the algorithm of the search engine changes to make pages about tumours more likely to appear.

This clear escalation of mild symptoms into life-threatening illnesses justifiably leads to an increased fear of having such an illness. In some cases it has even led to calls for hospitals to offer psychotherapy to help patients better analyse online information and deal with the induced stress.

Cyberchondria is also, therefore, part of a wider problem of online advice leading to misdiagnoses. Another review of 23 online symptom-checker website found that a correct diagnosis appeared in as little as 34% of searches.

Researchers at Nottingham University found that, when searching for the answers to 5 common paediatric questions, websites were only correct 39% of the time. 11% were incorrect and the remaining 49% failed to even answer the question.

By comparison, a consultation with a doctor is accurate upwards of 90% of the time.

Many doctors have praised the positive indications of this trend of people becoming more aware and responsible for their health. However, the significant lesson from rising cyberchondria: there really is no comparison to a face-to-face consultation with a professional doctor.

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