Words Matter When it Comes to Tech-Savvy Patients

Gienna Shaw, August 24, 2010

Steel yourself for some alarming news: Cyberchondriacs are on the rise, up from 50 million in 1998 to 175 million today, according to market research firm Harris Interactive. And they're also getting more active: "Fully 32% of all adults who are online say they look for health information 'often,' compared to 22% last year."

Sounds like bad news, doesn't it? But wait—what exactly is a cyberchondriac? According to Harris, they've used the term since 1998 to describe people (are you sitting down?) who look for healthcare information online.

It turns out cyberchondriac is just a malignant-sounding word for what is in fact a benign—if not beneficial—condition.

The debate over what to call patients who look up information about a condition or treatment, a physician's credentials, or even (gasp!) alternative forms of treatment, has been simmering since at least 2007. It was brought to a head, in part, by a Time magazine column by Scott V. Haig, MD, When the patient is a Googler.

In it, he complains about a patient who was rude, demanding, and who researched him and her condition online. (Not to mention that her three-year-old "little monster" stomped fish crackers and Cheerios into his rug.)

After she asked a "barrage of excruciatingly well-informed questions," Haig wrote, he decided to drop her as a patient.

Patient advocates were, not surprisingly, displeased—and not about the fish crackers and Cheerios on the carpet. A post on the New York Times Well blog, A doctor's disdain for medical Googlers, garnered hundreds of emotional responses.

While some said the doctor was merely complaining about demanding patients, others said that by harping on the fact that she'd done research online, he was suggesting that patients who educate themselves online and ask well-informed questions are by their very nature as annoying as a toddler's snack foods ground into a rug.

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