Don’t let cyberchondria scare you

With Halloween just around the corner, we’re reminded of all the ghosts, mummies, monsters, and zombies to fear. Sometimes we even psych ourselves out into thinking that something is scary: the stairs leading down to the basement? Not scary until we let our imagination run away with us. You know what else sounds scary? cyberchondria (cue the creepy music).

Wait a minute… cyberchondria? That sounds awful – better Google it to see what it is. As you’re typing it into the search engine though, you notice a little bit of discomfort in your chest. It’s probably just indigestion, but to be safe, you switch your search to “chest pain”. The first link has a list of causes and symptoms of chest pain. As you read through the list, you start to get a little nervous; you’re pretty sure that you’ve had most of the listed symptoms at some point though you can’t quite remember… but you’re still pretty sure. Soon you start reading stories about misdiagnosed deadly illnesses and clicking on never-ending links to the next terrifying condition. Now you have more worries than when you started. What now?

Although at times overwhelming, the internet can be great for patients and healthcare providers alike. Having so many resources available allows a patient to be informed, ask great questions, and really partner with their healthcare provider. One survey reported that at least eight out of ten Americans were using the internet to look for health information. From a healthcare provider’s point of view, the internet allows us to network with other providers, stay in touch with our patients, and stay up-to-date on new health recommendations and research.

However, it can be difficult to sift through the information overload to figure out what is accurate and what isn’t. The internet offers information ranging from regulated medical sites to unregulated personal health bloggers. Social media, in particular, is a very popular way to read and share information, with one survey showing that 90% of 18-24-year-olds would trust medical information shared by their network on social media. Trusting erroneous information can lead you down a dark spiral of health anxiety, with the constant worry that something is seriously wrong with your body.

Paired with the internet’s sensationalism, health anxiety can turn you into a “cyberchondriac,” a person who succumbs to the power of suggestion of medical symptoms. It sounds like a funny term, but it can be life-altering as people become preoccupied with possible health issues, fall behind at work, miss precious time with family, make trip after trip into the clinic and emergency rooms, and undergo a battery of expensive, painful, and often dangerous tests. Obviously, this is the extreme end of the condition, but many people who don’t have true cyberchondria would still probably admit to occasional increased anxiety about their health due to internet searches.

Now that we’ve drawn attention to health anxiety and cyberchondria, how can we avoid that extreme and feel more Zen about our health?

1. Take a deep breath and log off.

Even a few minutes away from the screen can give your mind and body the time it needs to calm and refocus.

2. Write down your specific concerns and details.

You’ll worry less about forgetting something important that you want to tell your healthcare provider. Try to focus on what you’re actually feeling, not what you read that someone else was feeling.

3. Schedule a healthcare visit.

Find a health care provider that will listen to your concerns. Continuing to worry without taking action will only make matters worse and increase health anxiety. Choose a provider that will give you the time you deserve and is easy to keep in touch with as it is likely you will need to have some continued conversations.

4. Focus on your wellness.

Staying healthy beats fighting an illness or disease any day of the week.

Cultivating scientific curiosity and researching medical conditions is generally good because it allows for a more educated public (in a theoretical, ideal internet with fact-checked articles galore). However, obsessively searching for validation of imaginary conditions is harmful to your sanity. RetraceHealth is here to support your health and wellness goals. Our medical providers are easily accessible 7 days a week by online visits, emails, phone calls, and even a visit to your home or office if needed. We are dedicated to truly listening to your needs and concerns. But if you find a monster under your bed, you’re on your own.

Make the most of your medical visit

A New York Times op-ed from this summer described marijuana dispensaries as a model for effective medical care. The praise, of course, was not about marijuana at all, but rather how they are organized in such a way as to provide greater service to their patients. Specifically, the marijuana dispensaries know that the medical provider has limited time to address the concerns of the patient, so they make sure that the support staff can fill in to answer any lingering questions or concerns.

This got me thinking about what patients can do to make sure that their medical provider answers their most important questions. What can they do to maximize their time during their medical visit, regardless of whether the experience lasts for 15 minutes or an hour? Well, here are a few tips on how to get the most out of your next visit – whether it’s a clinic, a hospital, or yes, even a marijuana dispensary:

1. Make a list of your questions and concerns and prioritize them.

One of the most frustrating things for both provider and patient is not getting to what needs to be addressed during a visit. No matter how long the visit, you and your provider still won’t be able to cover every aspect of your health. Listing and prioritizing your questions/concerns ahead of time ensures that the most important aren’t missed.

2. Ask about medication side effects.

The benefits of taking any medication need to be weighed against its side effects, and only you can ultimately decide if it’s worth it.

3. Ask about treatment options.

From alternative medications to lifestyle changes, to doing nothing, discussing your options and understanding the benefits and risks of each is as much your responsibility as it is your provider’s. Insist on having this discussion.

4. Be able to repeat back to the provider the plan of care.

This is simply a way to prove that you understand your care plan. It’s frightening how often patients don’t know why they are on a certain medication. The medical provider may think you understand, but you may have no clue! Again, it’s as much your responsibility as it is your provider’s to ensure understanding, so when in doubt ask questions.

The more time a patient and provider have, the better the communication; however, the better the communication, the less time the patient needs to have a worthwhile experience. Advocating for yourself and coming with a plan will help ensure that you get the best care – for you.