If you operate in the clinical space—whether you’re a physician, psychotherapist, RMT, physiotherapist, optometrist, chiropractor, or dentist—having a regularly maintained blog can be a tremendous help, not only keeping your current patients informed, but also attracting new patients, establishing your authority, building up your SEO, and providing a resource for the world at large. (After all, regardless of your area of practice, your content can benefit everyone in some way—every human body operates with the same basic machinery, so-to-speak.)
However, as helpful as informative blog posts can be, they can sometimes be a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to patient wellness, causing unintentional consequences that can be dangerous—and, in some cases, even fatal.
In this post, I hope to outline the potential dangers of well-intentioned articles, and follow with how you can make sure that the content you put out there to help your patients doesn’t inadvertently harm them.
The Temptation of Technology and the Scourge of Cyberchondria
Hospitals, doctors’ offices, and clinical appointments can be inconvenient. You will usually need to book some time off, sit in a waiting room—often alongside people who themselves are contagious—only to be poked and prodded for a while and, God willing, be sent on your way.
While the check-up or the consultation is generally considered a price we pay for good health, in recent years the face-to-face with a medical professional has started to lose ground to the convenience of Dr. Google. After all, a simple search of your symptoms can result in an instant diagnosis from the comfort of your own home. “Plus,” many tell themselves, “if it’s serious enough to require immediate medical help, the Internet will tell me so… right?”
As a result of this swing from the waiting room to the search bar, we’ve seen a massive increase in cyberchondriacs (people who constantly self-diagnose based on their own Internet research). And, while being aware of the details of certain disorders can be extremely beneficial, self-diagnosis can be dangerous.
Confirmation Bias: Not Just for Political News
When we hear the words ‘Confirmation Bias’ these days, our minds often jump to politics. It makes sense; confirmation bias has enjoyed quite a bit of time in the limelight following the 2016 US elections. However, confirmation bias isn’t just a “Liberal Fake News/Republican Propaganda” device; it is a blanket concept that applies to the human brain. In fact, it helps us to comb through and process information, interpreting new input in the context of our own thoughts and experiences.
In terms of cyberchondria, if we have self-diagnosed a particular ailment or disorder, all our search results will have a bias supporting the idea that our self-assessment is true. We will naturally seek out data that reinforces this belief, and disregard any findings that may suggest that our self-diagnosis is incorrect.
Confirmation Bias’ Dark Cousin
With all the attention following the election, a new term has sprung up among analysts to describe one of the darker corners of the confirmation bias: Desirability bias, wherein we accept facts not based on what we believe is true, but instead of what we hope is true. (This is different from the ‘desirability bias’ with which those of you in the psychological field are familiar, which defines desirability bias as people answering poll questions based on what is socially acceptable rather than answering honestly.)
In medical terms, this can be extremely dangerous in a number of ways: For example, pride might prevent one from acknowledging that they are experiencing health conditions relating to a poor diet or lack of exercise. Fear might prevent one from wanting to admit that they might need invasive tests or procedures. And, of course, nobody is truly comfortable with the idea that they might have a major life-threatening disease such as cancer.
This ‘desirability bias’ can easily twist very serious problems into relatively benign diagnoses: Stomach cancer becomes gastritis, a heart attack become asthma or anxiety, and diabetes becomes a minor thyroid disorder.
Googleitis, Cyberchondria, and the Nocebo Effect
Most of us are aware of ‘the placebo effect’, which is when we experience the benefits of medicine that we didn’t actually take. However, this psychosomatic device has a negative side as well, where we experience negative side effects simply because we’re expecting them, known as the ‘Nocebo Effect‘.
While the nocebo effect was discovered in association with pharmaceutical side effects, the effect extends far beyond the pharmacy, and is often associated with ‘imaginary illness’ and mass hysteria, such as ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’.
Essentially, if you believe that you have a disorder that you researched on the Internet, and then you read that you should exhibit symptoms that you’re not actually experiencing, then your body can induce those symptoms—anything from nausea to fever to even changes in blood pressure. In one recorded case, a member in a clinical trial attempted to overdose on placebo medication—and nearly died from the nocebo effect.
Needless to say, psychosomatic symptoms can make a patient even harder to diagnose when they finally do seek help from a clinical professional.
The Surprisingly Simple Solution: Be ‘A’ Clinical Authority—Not ‘The’ Clinical Authority.
While it simply isn’t possible to talk in great detail about a condition without leading at least some of your readers to wonder, “Is that what it is?” about themselves or their loved ones, it is certainly possible (and pretty easy) to dissuade this line of thinking: Don’t speak in absolutes. Always be sure to offer differential diagnoses where appropriate (for example, if you’re writing an article about gastritis, mention that symptoms are also associated with other more serious diseases, and should be checked out by a doctor), and always suggest that they get checked out by a trained clinical professional before self-diagnosing.
Not only does this (hopefully) discourage harmful side effects of self-diagnosis, but it also organically segues into a call-to-action (your ‘book an appointment today’ line). Even if you aren’t the clinical professional that you’re suggesting (IE if your article is about severe depression, you will want to direct readers who are experiencing thoughts of self-harm to a hotline, not your voice mail), you can still follow that with an ‘Alternately, call us today for a consultation’.
Alternately, you can bring in a specialized content writer who can help to make sure that your website provides quality content that doesn’t encourage ‘cyberchondria’-related problems. We provide both writing and editing services, helping you to make sure that your content is interesting, readable, and above all, helpful for your readers. To learn more, contact us today.
He is also unable to make a 'Penseur' pose without looking at least a bit ridiculous, as evidenced by his profile photo.