Treating Cyberchondria: How to Calm Online Self-Diagnosers

You spent years going through the rigors of med school and dealing with the grueling demands of residency. Not to mention, you’ve probably provided quality care to countless patients during your time practicing medicine. Why then, are so many patients combative of your diagnoses?

One study points to the Internet as the leading cause of patient dissent. According to data gathered in the 2010 Pew Internet and American Life Project, eight in 10 Americans use the Internet to research symptoms online.

So as a 21 century physician, how are you supposed to contest the opinion of the all-knowing Web without insulting your patients? Well, it’s going to take a little patience and plenty of communication.


While online searches can occasionally lead to correct self-diagnosis, many times they just cause anxiety or what’s referred to as cyberchondria: an unfounded anxiety about one’s wellness brought on by self-diagnoses from information and medical websites.

With all the suspicious health websites out there, some of which are simply advertising their products, it’s easy for patients to be scared into thinking they have something they do not.

Today, cyberchondria is forcing physicians to spend more time on office visits than ever before. They now have to identify why the patient has a particular disease, explain why that diagnosis is questionable and then identify the actual cause of the symptoms.

With declining reimbursements forcing doctors to take on more patients than ever before, time is a luxury many can’t afford.

How To Approach Cyberchondriacs

When a patient walks in with a stack of printouts, physicians must remember not to be dismissive.  The patient spent time learning about symptoms, memorizing medical lingo, identifying possible treatment options, and doing whatever else it took to make sense of what’s going on with their body.

Dismissing their efforts will only frustrate them, and may even anger them to the point of walking out. This could sour the physician-patient relationship you worked so hard to build.

So let them express their concerns, however unsubstantiated they may be. Then ask open-ended questions about what is going on and when the symptoms began. This will quickly lead into a discussion about your diagnosis.

After, direct them toward medical resources you feel are the most credible, and explain to them how some websites are just looking to sell medical products to vulnerable patients. Before they leave, guide them toward reliable sites like the Cleveland Clinic or Mayo Clinic, or provide a list of other websites addressing their particular condition.

Try teaching them how to identify credible sources of health information so cyberchondria doesn’t crop up again.

If the patient still sides with the Internet, spend a few extra minutes reassuring the individual, rather than going ahead and ordering a test for a condition they don’t have.

You’ll see the best results by working with your patients to calm their anxiety, instead of against them. Ultimately, you want to build strong, trusting relationships, so patients follow your treatment plans to the tee.