Cyberchondria – that is a condition where people look up health concerns online and then end up getting overly anxious over the results which usually indicates that they suffer from a deadly condition. With a glut of dubious material that is available online and in social media, patients are unable to differentiate between what is real and what is not.

A common symptom to ending up with a serious illness

To illustrate an example, take the case of Carlos; a systems engineer who was accustomed to dealing with deadlines and stress. However, headaches have been affecting him for a few weeks, causing him to be unable to concentrate on his work. With it nagging him, he enters his condition into his mobile phone and in less than a second, it has found over 34 million hits. Bombarded with information, he decides to visit the first few websites that come up. He soon finds himself searching “cancer” and found that there are some very fatal brain tumours that could kill him within a few months.

A study led by researchers at Harvard Medical School noted that most of these sites are so inconsistent and erroneous that patients should not be relying upon them to get the right diagnosis. The study found that the correct diagnosis came up first only 34%of the time. It also noted that though some clinicians claim that online symptom checkers are a good way to cut down on doctor visits, the researchers found the opposite to be the case instead. In a surprising twist, two thirds of patients who used the symptom checkers but didn’t need medical attention sought it anyway.

Self-diagnosis - a commonplace for patients today

It is estimated that around 72% of patients today get their health information online. With an abundance of incorrect information in social media, doctors now have to also educate their patients on where and how to find and identify trustworthy health information.

Dr. Chris Feudtner, Director of Medical Ethics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia noted that social media in particular; because of its prevalence in our lives, can affect how patients interact with their doctors and what type of care they expect. He added that doctors should ask about what their patients and families have read on the Internet, and then carefully work through that information.

A hypothetical case

To survey the ethical challenges that may face doctors due to their patients’ virtual lives, Feudtner examined a fictional case with elements of several current real-life situations. In this hypothetical case, the parents of a ten year old boy who was hospitalized with cancer started a blog. Healthcare professionals, including doctors and nurses were among the 1000 subscribers to his blog. After a year of being discharged from the hospital, the boy suddenly suffers a relapse causing his parents to launch an online petition seeking access to an experimental cancer treatment which is only available through clinical trials. However, the trials were no longer accepting new patients.

In a matter of days, the petition draws over 50,000 supporters and news crews gather in front of the hospital awaiting for a response from the hospital’s management. Besides the pressure this puts on the hospital’s management and doctors to help a child who is in critical condition, this situation raises broader ethical issues about how treatment decisions should be made.

Doctors note that there is a fairness issue that arises as not all families have the same access to social media or are social media savvy in using online communities to advocate for the care that they want. As such, it is recommended for hospitals to have policies in place so that they can handle situations such as when their patients’ social media posts go viral and take the appropriate steps in responding proactively. MIMS