The “NoCebo” Effect and How Online Health Information Affects Patients

Type into Google any symptom you can dream up and results are sure to be produced for websites offering opinions, diagnosis and treatments.  Online access to health “information” has rapidly grown and consumers are able to research their probable diagnosis at the click of a button.  However, keep in mind the next time you are searching for the answers behind your sniffle or cough; authors may not possess the reliability a true physician can offer.

The mind is a curious thing and humans are naturally born to succumb to persuasion.  In a recent article from Fast Company, “Consuming Health-Related News Could Make You Sick (If You Believe It),” the “nocebo effect” was tested; this being that when people are told they might get sick, they do.  The study revolved around informing half a study group that WiFi could harm humans while the others were merely shown a video discussing online security.  When participants were individually placed into a room with a “WiFi amplifier” attached, nearly half experienced extreme anxiety and tingling in their limbs (note: no WiFi was actually present).

With this study in mind, consider the last time you searched online for health information.  Perhaps you were having a tic in your neck or a tingle in your big toe; many immediately gravitate online to research the possible cause of their current sensations.  When browsing online, those searching will come across articles written by everyday persons with no prior or current medical education; just merely publishing hearsay information or personal opinions.  Reading these articles and blog postings can often cause unnecessary stress and overreaction based upon incorrect information.

While online health information is truly a great resource for consumers; physicians must be aware of the abundance of false information and work to create and provide genuine information themselves.  Directing patients to the sites where information is housed can give consumers direct access to and knowledge of where to find legitimate, trustworthy medical research and information.

For those still blindly searching online, some great tips from Texas A&M are available here.  These tips will assist in validating credibility and sifting through irrelevant information.  Happy searching!

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