Posted: Tue 2nd Jul 2019
Don't roll your eyes. Cyberchondria isn't like bromance, chillax, grrrl (yes, really: that's an aggressive young woman, apparently) or the other pointless words that have made it into the Oxford English Dictionary lately. It's real. And it could be costing your business dearly.
Anxiety caused by Googling symptoms instead of consulting medical professionals is costing the NHS £420m a year, a recent study found. One in five NHS appointments are unnecessary and prompted by fears stoked by Dr Google, said researchers from Imperial College London.
Your staff - indeed anyone juggling a busy job and all the other trappings of modern living - are at particular risk of developing cyberchondria. Here's why and what you can do to help your business and employees avoid falling victim to this very modern malady.
What is cyberchondria?
It's natural to fear the worst when presented with unfamiliar symptoms. And there's always been a minority for whom it can become a debilitating source of anxiety. Now, with the sum of human experience just the swipe of a screen away, the problem is growing.
Most of us can't resist a spot of online medical research: 72% per cent of internet users search for health-related information online, according to research by Pew. Yet search algorithms make little or no allowance for the veracity of the information they display.
Wikipedia, which allows anyone to make and edit posts, is the sixth most popular website for medical information, a study in the Journal of American Osteopathic Association found. Type the word cancer into Google and Wikipedia comes back at the top of search results.
Yet the same study found that nine out of 10 Wiki articles concerning the 10 most costly conditions in the US (including lung cancer, heart disease, depression and diabetes) contained errors and were not up to date with the latest research.
The combination of search engine algorithms, online misinformation and the nature of those with hypochondriac tendencies means a rash is more likely to become meningitis, a lump, cancer and so on. Cyberchondria is hypochondria, supercharged by the internet.
How the pace of life puts more at risk of cyberchondria
Today's frantic pace of life and the unprecedented challenges faced by the NHS are putting more of us - even those with few hypochondriac tendencies - at greater risk of developing cyberchondria when presented with worrying symptoms.
"This is partly related to the current lack of accessibility to health professionals - in some cases, it can take up to three weeks to see an NHS GP," says Dr Zeesham Akhtar, a senior registrar at Oxford University Hospital
"The increase of people using online resources has been influenced by patients wanting greater autonomy over their health and lifestyle choices, in addition to a desire to find out the causes of their symptoms immediately."
Brits have to wait for 13 days before seeing a GP on average, an August 2018 survey found. That's twice as long as in 2012. Unsurprisingly, most workers (43%) want to see a doctor on the day they call. Yet only a third do. One in four have to wait for at least a week.
So, it's little wonder that so many of us turn to Dr Google. According to the same NHS survey, 12% research an illness online when they can't see a GP, making it the internet a more popular choice than seeing a pharmacist of calling the NHS helpline 111.
How employers can protect staff (and their business)
As we've seen, Dr Google has no medical qualifications. Of course, you can access more reliable sources than Wikipedia through Google - such as NHS.uk, WebMD or HarvardHealth - but this is no substitute to speaking to a qualified doctor.
This is where you, the employer, comes in. "With many employees finding it difficult to find time to visit a doctor, employers should look at their current health and wellbeing packages, whilst taking into consideration the needs of their workforce," says Dr Akhtar.
"Employee health packages should offer proactive, preventative healthcare options, to not only discourage the Googling of symptoms, but to encourage people to take control of their own health."
There's an irony in all this: workers with cyberchondria can end up needing more time off work than if their fears were realised. Cyberchondria causes stress and anxiety, conditions that resulted in 12.5 million sick days in 2016/17, a rise of 7% on the previous year.
Giving staff instant access to expert medical advice, and allowing them to avoid the waiting times of the NHS, is key to fighting this. When staff are suffering from anxiety about their health, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy are proven effective treatments.
The question is not whether you can afford an employee health package that provides this, but can you afford not to?
Matthew Reed is co-founder and managing director of Equipsme. Surprisingly simple health insurance for business.