The rise of ‘cyberchrondriac’ patients who self-diagnose from online searches has caused a surge in unnecessary health fears, experts have warned.
The problem is becoming ‘remarkably common’, with many visiting hospitals with exaggerated concerns after researching their condition via ‘Dr Google’ or reading about a celebrity’s health problems.
Experts yesterday revealed they estimate that up to one in five outpatients in hospitals across the country could have a condition called health anxiety, which leads them to excessively analyse their health.
Sufferers are costing the NHS at least £420million a year, estimated Dr Barbara Barrett, a senior lecturer in health economics at King’s College London.
But she warned the total cost, including follow-up tests such as an MRI scan – which costs the NHS £200 – was likely to be much higher.
Although some with health anxiety may have a genuine physical ailment, sufferers will often believe their condition is far more severe than it really is, ‘despite all medical evidence to the contrary’.
Researchers are now calling for health anxiety to be widely recognized as a condition and for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to produce guidelines on managing it.
The team, from King’s and Imperial College London, believe treating the illness could save the health service millions. Yesterday Peter Tyrer, emeritus professor in community psychiatry at Imperial said: ‘Health anxiety is remarkably common, we think it’s getting more common.
‘People now go to their GP with a whole list of things they looked up on the internet and say: “What do you make of this?” Unfortunately, Dr Google … is very informative but he doesn’t put things in the right proportioning. [Google] mentions … a serious disease which is very rare, but unfortunately the health anxious patient … thinks: “I’m the one in the 1,000”.’
He said recent trends for monitoring our own health are legitimising the behaviour, adding: ‘That plus cyberchondria is reinforcing the frequency of this condition.’ The researchers said health anxiety is often triggered by an event such as a death or an illness seen in a celebrity. Sufferers will repeatedly seek medical reassurance but this ‘only affords temporary relief’.
The team claimed that if just 5 per cent of the cost of outpatient appointments were linked to health anxiety, this would cost the NHS a ‘conservative estimate’ of more than £420million a year.
But a study led by Professor Tyrer found cognitive behavioral therapy could help to treat sufferers and prevent thousands of wasted trips to GPs and hospitals.