Internet, catalyst of all hypochondria?

11:00 p.m., interior night: By the light of your smartphone, you browse the Google results of several medical sites, trying to find out if the pain you are feeling is a sign of the flu or a brain tumor. You are not alone.

According to the study Digital Report 2022 conducted by the international agency We Are Social and the Hootsuite platform, 26% of Internet users, all ages and countries combined, would look for their symptoms online each week. A figure that rises to just over 30% among women between 25 and 44 years old.

Percentage of Internet users who research their symptoms online each week

Percentage of Internet users who research their symptoms online each week. Source: Digital Report/We Are Social.

If France is quite far in the ranking of countries that seek their symptoms the most online each week (barely 14% nationwide), the phenomenon is regularly observed by health professionals. ” In 30 years, I have seen the Larousse company move to the Internet. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s getting easier says Dr. Jean-Christophe Nogrette, general practitioner and deputy general secretary of the Syndicate of General Practitioners. According to him, what is recent is the phenomenon of escalation allowed by the internet: a headache that turns into a tumor in a few clicks. In 2019, the start-up 360 Medics, a collaborative medical platform for healthcare professionals, conducted a survey of 300 caregivers, showing that 83% of them have already received consultations from patients who have even their diagnosis.

For some patients who are already sensitive to hypochondria, online searches turn into cyberchondria, a portmanteau term that points to the tendency to seek any information about a symptom, to the point of being carried away by a wave of information that would point to the existence supposed serious imaginary illnesses. ” In the office, people come to see us with what I call “My Google friend”, who is in fact no one’s friend. With self-diagnosis, patients sometimes buy drugs and do anything without a professional diagnosis ” laments Corinne Le Sauder, general practitioner and president of the Federation of Doctors of France. A phenomenon that affects even more specialized medicine, from pediatrics to gynecology, via dermatology. According to Corinne Le Sauder, this cyberchondria is only the illustration of the generalized anxiety of our society.

A hypochondria facilitated by a desire for immediacy

In the age of the Internet, searching for and finding information is child’s play. A desire for immediacy that serves medicine, for Corinne Le Sauder: ” people want to know everything very quickly, and want to project themselves into the future. For hypochondriacs, it’s easier to do an internet search than to call a doctor “. Especially since technological tools have made us more autonomous in the face of a large number of problems, favoring time savings and the proliferation of information.

The recent health crisis has not improved the situation: Corinne Le Sauder even speaks of a situation ” deplorable “, where ” everyone thought they were experts “. ” The Covid increased our desire to go and see our symptoms. People are still afraid, there were the problems of masks, then vaccines… she enumerates. Jean-Christophe Nogrette has seen the explosion of research for scientific information on very specific subjects, such as vaccination. ” Some people don’t have the scientific background to read all this information he adds.

Another factor in our digital hypochondria lies in the development and democratization of telemedicine: according to the report by We Are Social and Hootsuite, Doctolib is the 20th website the most visited in France in 2021, and the 5th most downloaded application in 2021, well ahead of Snapchat or Facebook. Video appointments can be useful for small sores, but for Corinne Le Sauder, this puts patients in front of caregivers ” who do not know the treatments or the history, who cannot do an examination “.

Overview of Doctolib offices.

Photography: Doctolib

The emergence of telemedicine echoes a crisis in the healthcare system in France, according to Corinne Le Sauder, who denounces a “ skills transfer » of overwhelmed health professionals and fewer and fewer. ” People think that with the internet, they are little doctors. We see it with some alternative medicine. Everyone can know everything, driven by fear she analyzes. In 2020, in a study published in the Medical journal of Australia, researchers at Edith Cowan University in Australia looked at the diagnoses offered online, on various medical sites: only 36% of them turned out to be correct. Results that show the importance of the relationship between patients and doctors. ” This confidence is essential, it is the role of the doctor to reassure insists Corinne Le Sauder.

Monitoring your health, but at what cost?

The emergence of connected devices, from watches to scales, is a sign of this enthusiasm for monitoring our health. Still according to We Are Social’s Digital Report 2022, more than 20% of French people wear a connected watch or bracelet. For Vincent Vercamer, head of public affairs and market access, project manager “My health space” and Lise Carrillo, UX Researcher at Withingsthe growing pressure from society to have a healthy lifestyle can explain the enthusiasm of the general public to equip themselves with these devices. Today we can no longer pretend not to know risky behaviors and their consequences. “. Equipping themselves with devices that help them understand their health would allow users to be on the path to a healthier lifestyle.

The user is autonomous, he can have real-time results without systematically making an appointment with a doctor or a laboratory to obtain objective information on his state of health thanks to the use of these devices Say Vincent Vercamer and Lise Carrillo. However, for them, connected objects are only the reflection of pre-existing anxieties among certain users. ” For more anxious personalities, connected objects can participate in an already existing trend to monitor their health very closely. This is why at Withings we are very careful not to encourage this type of behavior by working on the discourse that accompanies the restitution of the measurements. they say.

The proliferation of more or less credible medical sites makes it difficult to find reliable information about our health. Thus, looking for a symptom can make it possible to go from all to nothing. Corinne Le Sauder recommends that these sites specify that they are not doctors, and that they rely more on the hierarchy of symptoms. With this in mind, the team of the brand of connected health objects Withings assures: ” It’s not so much the amount of data that matters most, but how it is received by the user “. Vincent Vercamer and Lise Carrillo thus explain that the presentation of data from their devices is essential, so as not to drown the user in raw data but to “ give him understandable tools from which he can make decisions beneficial to his health “.

Knowledge… is power

But is searching the internet for symptoms so bad? According to a study published in March 2021 in the medical journal JAMA Network and conducted by researchers at Harvard University, looking for your symptoms online would not be so dangerous… even useful. The study thus shows a (weak) improvement in the accuracy of the diagnosis after researching his symptoms on the internet, going from 49.8% before to 54% after. For people who have had bad experiences with caregivers, looking for their symptoms online would help to reassure themselves and anticipate appointments.

Especially since the various health data can make it possible to make correlations, and to push patients to consult a doctor. ” Digital technology provides new ways of accessing information, tools and health professionals, which allows everyone to be much more active in managing their health, and for many users this means by a feeling of serenity, confidence and evolution towards a better way of life develops the Withings team. The connected object company thus takes the example of sleep, a piece of data that is difficult to analyze, and yet one of the most frequently consulted: according to Withings, one in two users will consult their sleep data more than once a week.

For Jean-Christophe Nogrette, this desire to understand his symptoms is perfectly legitimate. “Either they make a correct analysis and the diagnosis is likely, or they go into rantings, and I have to bring them back to earth,” he explains, before recalling that it is a phenomenon ” relatively limited in his patients. ” The more people appropriate a subject, even badly, the more they progress in general knowledge adds the doctor. Progressing the general knowledge of the patients would facilitate his work of explaining certain illnesses. ” Digital also presents a downside, which goes well beyond the field of health, by giving daily visibility on elements which, before, were managed by professionals. recall Vincent Vercamer and Lise Carrillo of Withings. A way to get to know each other better… if our research is followed by appointments with health professionals.

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Internet, catalyst of all hypochondria?

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