It’s Time to Retire ‘Cyberchondriacs’

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights on August 12, 2010

Earlier this month, the Harris Poll announced the results from its annual poll of online health behavior, which dates back more than a decade, to 1998. Also dated is the term Harris helped introduce in 1998: “cyberchondriac.” This year’s survey results were published under the headline “Cyberchondriacs on the Rise?” Whatever the results of the new poll tell us, there is one point that comes through clearly: it is time to retire the phrase “cyberchondriac.” There are three good reasons why we should never be subjected to that term again:

1. Cyberchondric is derogatory term for patients seeking heath information online, an activity that is not only mainstream, but is crucial to the way the health care system operates. Half of all information seekers say they’ve gone online to extend a discussion they’ve already had with their doctor. And more than 7 in every 8 searchers said they found what they needed online. To slap a pejorative label does a disservice to the idea that patients out to be involved in their own health care and subtly discourages efforts to get patients more information-savvy on the web.

2. There is no evidence that increasing health searches is bringing hordes of the worried well into physician waiting rooms. In 1998, with the Internet still in its infancym, it wasn’t beyond the pale to think that people with sudden access to huge amounts of health information would start acting like medical students and begin self-diagnosing with invisible maladies. But years of research has shown that consumers of health information are, by and large, not triggering any psychosomatic epidemics. In short: there is no huge army of Internet-enable hypochondriacs out there.

3. Referring to online health seekers with a loaded term makes it harder to focus on the stats that really matter. Like this one: according to Harris, 46 percent of those who look for info online “never” talk about it with their physician. That seems to be a finding with a lot more meat on it. If those people are generally happy with their searchers (as Harris suggests) and they find the information credible (as Harris suggests), yet they’re still not engaging the health system, this means one of two things: either they’re accurately diagnosising or self-treating minor ailments (which would be a good thing) or they are lulled into a false sense of security (which would not). As a person who frequently writes health information for the web, keeping those 46 percent in mind every time I sit at a keyboard is a lot more crucial than worrying about inducing cyberchondria.

Leaving “cyberchondric” aside, the Harris poll underscores a point that has become hugely important in the way that we approach “media” at WCG: people are flocking online for information. Nearly 9 in 10 online adults have used the Internet to find health information, and 62 percent of adults have looked for health information in the last month alone.

As a result, if you’re not paying close attention to what’s getting put on the web, you’re missing one of the primary sources of information for the new, modern patient. Just don’t call those folks cyberchondriacs.

[UPDATE, 8/30/10: For a thoughtful and more exhaustive history of the language used to talk about educated patients, check out today’s posting on by Susannah Fox.)


By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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6 Responses

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  1. Couldn’t agree more, Brian! One thing that occurred to me though. I’d like to suggest a 3rd reason that only 46% of people are talking to their docs about what they’ve found online … that their doc has given them cause to be intimidated to do so. I have literally had docs tell me, with eyes in full rolling mode, how much they hate it when people come in full of “uninformed opinions from the internet.” I wouldn’t be likely to reference any WebMD searches to a doc who told me that!

  2. Interesting read on the numbers: I had assumed that the 46 percent avoided the health care system altogether, but you’re right. At least some of those people are getting educated, then keeping that information to themselves when the doctor actually arrives.

    That’s another fascinating hurdle to address as communicators: are there ways to present information to make it accessible to the patient without being threatening to a physician?

  3. It’s the “hyper” that’s insulting, chondria –although not meaning anything by itself–is the act of being interested in health/disease within the phrase hyper (too much) or cyber (online)

    FD I was at Harris when Humphrey Taylor’s son in law came up with the term, and I thin it’s done a good job describing the emergence of health care consumers online.

    So give up, and find something more important to write about!

  4. Matthew —

    You have a fair point on the semantics, from a purely etymological point of view. The issue is the way that the term has been adopted by the public. A quick spin through Google and Wikipedia show that most people associate the term with unreasonable health concerns driven by Internet use, not the (perfectly reasonable and useful) Harris definition..

    I hate to see good language bastardized (the idea that some dictionaries include “figuratively” as a definition of “literally” still drives me insane), but — given the history — I still don’t see a lot of use in continuing to trot out “cyberchondia” each year.

    Thanks for the comment,

  5. Brian–I doubt Harris will give up their brand on this one, but you could try to convince Humphrey Taylor (Chairman, Harris Poll) directly–Perhaps you and Susannah Fox should write to him

Continuing the Discussion

  1. E-patients, Cyberchondriacs, and Why We Should Stop Calling Names | linked to this post on August 30, 2010

    […] Brian Reid’s post: It’s Time to Retire ‘Cyberchondriacs’ […]

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