One undeniable fact about the internet is that there is an incredibly extensive and diverse source of information. Any question can now be answered just by speaking the words ‘Hey Siri’ and this has had a massive impact on knowledge about medical conditions and how people react to symptoms and diagnoses. Nowadays, the first reaction to noticing a new pain, dizziness or a persistent headache is to research conditions they could be symptomatic of and respond accordingly.
The internet is notoriously a place filled with fake or misleading information but when it comes to medical advice it’s reliable, right? Not necessarily. These seemingly harmless searches often tend to snowball into excessive paranoia or what is now referred to as health anxiety, fuelled by clickbait articles and worst-case scenarios which more often than not, end with extremely dire consequences. Attempts have been made to combat the extent of misinformation in the medical industry - seen in the case of Wikipedia and its use of citations to prove the validity of information - but the majority of people still don’t check for this, making all information they come across of equal value, however trusted the source is. This cycle of overthinking is often only broken by a visit to a doctor’s surgery and medical confirmation that their issues are just passing pains that will cause little infliction upon their future health and well-being.
Health anxiety as a whole is massively provoked by the immediacy of a Google search. For example, if you were to search ‘headache’ the first website information when you search states that inflammation of blood vessels could lead to a stroke. There is no information about milder outcomes or even a precaution expressing that there are other factors; just bold text stating one of the worst outcomes imaginable. A study published by the National Institute for Health Research in 2017 claimed that the NHS could save over £400 million a year just by offering treatment for health anxiety yet a simple search is still reflecting such drastic outcomes as the first viewed. It is important to point out that the NHS does offer therapy and anxiety medication for those suffering severely from health anxiety, and the NHS website does recommend more standard methods of reducing pains whilst giving clear advice on what to do if issues persist or worsen. The problem here falls upon the fact that, when undertaking an internet search, the NHS website isn’t typically the first website that appears, so the spiralling that may follow such a serious ‘diagnosis’ will happen regardless.
However, it isn’t all bad. The internet also provides a safe space for people with medical conditions to meet others who are experiencing similar situations, allowing them to find a support system that can offer specific advice and make daunting appointments or changes seem a little more manageable. Support groups exist across all social media platforms, allowing people to share their stories and use their experiences to assist those who have only been diagnosed recently. These support groups are also an excellent resource for up-to-date information surrounding newer correction methods for certain conditions or new drug trials that may be of interest to others. When times truly get hard, it is crucial to have support from those who can relate to your struggles and pain, something that, without the integration of medicine and the media, wouldn’t be possible on the same scale that exists today.
A part of the medical industry that is almost exclusively reliant on media exposure is fundraising. Social media allows causes to reach a much wider audience, with people all around the world banding together to help others where they can in the sort of community that just wouldn’t be possible without the internet. Through the support of strangers, many people suffering from medical problems that require specialist medical treatment that is only available in a different country are able to receive help.
So, what does happen when some of the most trusted information sources interact with some of the least reliable? Will we ever be able to find a balance between these conflicting forces?