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Are you a cyberchondriac?; How an online obsession can worsen any imaginary illness.

Byline: BOB LOW

AT the height of her illness, Melissa Woyechowsky used to sit in bed and weep as silently as she could so that she wouldn't disturb her husband, David.

Invariably, he would wake up and share another night with his wife, her laptop computer and her symptoms.

Melissa is physically perfectly healthy - but at the age of 30, she was the world's first cyberchondriac.

Hypochondria, the excessive fear of illness, has now been overtaken by cyberchondria - the same fear made much worse, fuelled by volumes of easily-accessible material available on the Internet.

One of the problems is that much of the information on the Internet is misleading or just plain wrong.

The other is that having diagnosed themselves, surfers can then be tempted to prescribe themselves potentially dangerous drugs.

Melissa has now launched a website to help others. It's an ironic twist that now you can search on the Web to confirm you have a condition about searching the Web to confirm you have other conditions.

Melissa says: "The Internet added rocket fuel to my fears and it got to the point where I wasn't functional.

"I had tingling in my legs and I searched the Web to try and find out what the symptoms meant. I ended up in a neurological chatroom, convinced I had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I was just terrified. I was in bed crying with my laptop computer.

"I would visit the same sites over and over again. I wasn't searching for information, only for someone to confirm my worst fears.

"The trouble is that you accept information from a medical website that you would simply dismiss if you heard it from a person in a bar."

The problems were made worse by the fact that Melissa and David were moving half-way across America.

Melissa, of San Diego, California, says: "The stress of moving home seems to cause flare-ups and it also makes it that much harder to go to a doctor when you are relocating."

It took three years and pounds 10,000 for Melissa to get to a point where she felt she had her problem under control. She set up her website to help others realise they might have a problem, or the families of sufferers.

She explains: "I get a lot of letters from people asking me what to do about their mother-in-law or brother who is a hypochondriac, too.

"Even though I put on my website that I can't solve people's problems for them and I'm not a therapist, I can tell people about my experiences, and offer a sympathetic ear."

There are some 100,000 websites dedicated to health matters, but Melissa's - www.healthanxiety.com - is the only one to help those whose illness is that they are prone to morbidly imagining illnesses.

The others - posted by medical journals, hospitals, drug companies, agony aunts, self-help groups and just plain cranks - hold all the evidence cyberchondriacs need to reinforce the belief that they don't have a headache, they have a brain tumour, or that their weariness is a result of Aids, not staying up all night surfing for symptoms.

Melissa adds: "I'm surprised mine is the only website about this. It's a subject that strikes a chord with people - I get mail from all over the world."

Melissa believes there needs to be more education and understanding, on both doctor and patient sides - and is trying to do something about it.

She says: "Doctors are not trained to deal with this - I have quit my job and will interview doctors, medical educators and cyberchondriacs to try and write a book that will help all of them."

Dr Paul Cundy is chairman of the British Medical Association's GP information technology sub-committee, which last month issued the first set of UK guidelines on cyberchondria and Internet medicine in general.

He admits: "Hypochondriacs can be made much worse by access to the wealth of material on the Internet ... and a lot of it is seriously wrong. We estimate that about 25 per cent of the content is inaccurate or misleading."

Dr Julian Eden, a former GP, now runs an online consulting service, www.e-med.co.uk. His greatest fear is over the desire for the self-deluded to self-medicate.

He says: "The Web is not just a potential source of information, but of drugs as well. It is quite possible for someone with a heart condition to get hold of Viagra, for instance, with possibly fatal consequences."

Dodgy websites who will sell drugs to cyberchondriacs are a matter of great concern to companies such as Pharmacy2u.co.uk, one of a few companies licensed in Britain to prescribe medicines over the Net.

But boss Andrew Tucker says: "Online ordering makes it easier for us to spot cyberchondriacs as our database shows up the same people ordering the same things, or even constantly ordering different drugs.

"We don't allow people to stockpile drugs. We refuse them and request that they see their doctor."

THAT, of course, brings its own problems. The already overstretched and under-funded NHS can only spend, on average, seven minutes per patient for consultations according to new research.

Up to six per cent of GPs' patients are thought to be hypochondriacs and the Net is helping put even more strain on resources.

Already, some GPs are having to carry out batteries of tests on patients who have surfed the Net and memorised the symptoms of the illnesses they are convinced they have.

Dr Paul Cundy adds: "About 10 per cent of the people who come to the surgery have looked on the Web before they come to see the doctor.

"It is frustrating for doctors. Some decide to stop taking prescribed medicines because they learn of a rare complication on a website, others come with pages of print-outs, forcing GPs to deal with what they haven't got before they can deal with any real ailments."

However, Melissa Woyechowsky still defends the Internet. She says: "It can help or hurt - let's not forget that it is now a big part of my cure."

Her long-suffering husband has his own cure for cyberchondria ... amputation of the modem.

Three years on, Melissa can laugh at that.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:May 2, 2001
Words:1032
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