Menu Close

Dear worried well, the internet is not your friend

The worried well could be costing the NHS £56m in unnecessary tests and appointments, according to a recent estimate by Imperial College London. Many of these worried well are probably “cyberchondriacs” – people who’ve googled their symptoms and ended up in front of their GP, clutching a ream of internet evidence that they have a life-threatening disease.

If your skin is itchy (“pruritus”, in medicalspeak), it could be a sign that you have blood cancer. More likely, though, your skin is just a bit dry or that fancy new soap you bought doesn’t agree with you. Feeling a bit tired? Maybe you have anaemia or clinical depression. Or maybe you’ve just been working or partying too hard – or both.

If you have trouble sleeping, abdominal discomfort, dizziness or other common symptoms that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, you must decide whether to visit your doctor, change an aspect of your lifestyle (such as eating healthier or getting a better night’s sleep) or ignore your symptoms – at least for now.

You might fire up your laptop to see if there’s any information in the ether to help you decide on the best course of action. In all likelihood, though, it will only make your decision more difficult.

Best not to google it. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Well intentioned but misleading

A lot of online health information is well intentioned and informative, but some of it can be misleading. For example, some websites pair the early experience of fairly minor symptoms to potentially deadly chronic illnesses. A twitching eyelid is usually a sign that you’ve had too much caffeine, or not enough sleep; however, some websites will also tell you that it’s an early sign of multiple sclerosis.

While some people find it easy to compartmentalise this type of information and prevent it from becoming a cause for concern, for others worrying thoughts can be difficult to control, leading to increasing levels of anxiety.

Online sources of health information are broad and varied. They range from symptom checkers to charity websites, supporting those with selected chronic illnesses, to the personal blogs of people with various disorders. A number of commercial websites also provide free health information, alongside a recommended treatment.

If you’re worried about new symptoms, it’s important that you only access websites where the information has been written or reviewed by medical professionals, such as NHS Choices. These websites attempt to provide an unbiased and balanced view of symptoms that is informed by evidence-based medicine and clinical practice. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the information on these websites is often for information purposes only, and is not intended for diagnostic use.

But trustworthy medical websites are not what you will always get when you use a search engine, so it’s easy to be led to astray. Misinformation can lead to catastrophising (thinking the worst), rumination (dwelling on a troubling thought) and increased attention directed toward the area of discomfort, which can increase the experience of pain in the affected area. This leads to a downward spiral.

Alternative sources of medical advice

GPs are often the first port of call for people who are worried about their symptoms. But health services have a limited capacity and doctors often struggle to meet the demands of patients seeking diagnostic tests, referrals or reassurance for new symptoms.

Fortunately, alternative sources of healthcare are promoted to ensure that the worried can seek help without increasing the impact on primary care, these include pharmacies, walk-in-centres and telephone helplines. This range of alternative places to seek more formal medical advice means that if you are worried about your symptoms, you don’t need to turn to the internet to find out if your symptom is serious and whether you need further medical help.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,300 academics and researchers from 4,982 institutions.

Register now