Cyberchondria, Telehealth, and Online Consultations

June 15, 2011
Jill taylor

New telehealth technologies and greater access to online consultations may mean we'll soon see the last of "Dr. Google."

New telehealth technologies and greater access to online consultations may mean we’ll soon see the last of “Dr. Google.”

A couple of months ago, when I learned that there was actually a name (cyberchondria) for the phenomenon of patients who go online to research their symptoms, only to become convinced that they have every disease they read about that even vaguely matches those symptoms, it occurred to me that the pendulum may potentially swing away from Google searches and back in the direction of physicians and health care professionals as the primary source of medical information.

I don’t think it will happen quickly, nor do I think it will curb patients’ desire to use the Internet to be more informed. But I do think it will happen as technology and medicine evolve together and teleheath/online medical consultations become mainstream.

Within just the last couple of years, companies like American Well have been progressively bringing solutions that make online consultations by physicians more available. If you’re a patient with a computer, and you have online access to both Google and your health care provider or a pharmacist, where will you go for accurate information? In situations where all other conditions are equal, I’m thinking patients will opt to consult with their health care provider and use Google as an online source for additional information or a virtual “second opinion.”

Few people would argue against the benefits of information that comes straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth, right? But when patients consult with their physicians about symptoms, a problem condition, potentially changing treatments, etc, they not only get useful information, but they have the added benefit of getting the ball rolling toward medical care.

Technology is accommodating patients by making medical care ever more accessible, as is illustrated by the new Skin of Mine iPhone app. Patients can now monitor changes in their skin for multiple conditions between doctor visits, and in some areas of the country, they can send images to their dermatologist for an opinion. I’m not recommending this app or any other -- I’m just pointing out that patients are gaining more access to medical consultation not just at their desks, but at restaurants, the office, on soccer fields... you get the picture (no pun intended).

Only five or six years ago, I remember conversations about telehealth being used primarily as a way to provide care to rural or underserved populations. In five or six more years, telehealth and online consultations could be the vehicle that enables most of us to enjoy greater access to primary care. And, with any luck, the levels of cyberchondria you experience will be less the result of Google searches and more a reflection of your online presence and engagement.