Doctors warn the cybersick

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The Independent Online
DOCTORS are on the alert for a new kind of victim: the cyberchondriac. With so much health information now on the Internet, thousands of people are using their computers to try to match symptoms with diseases.

But this mix-and-match self-diagnosis means that many of them with relatively trivial symptoms have been linking them with serious diseases such as brain tumours and Alzheimer's.

As a result, GPs have been getting called out at night by cyberpatients who believe they have a life-threatening disease as a result of what they have read.

Now, an increasing number of doctors are setting up their own GP practice web sites to help to filter the information that patients can get from the Internet.

Since Lytham St Anne's GP, Dr Nick Lowe, set up his web site, more than 2,500 of his patients have visited it. "One of the problems is that if you simply type your problem into a search engine, you get swamped with things to look at. One thing I worry about is people going on to the Internet with a health concern before seeing the doctor and perhaps going into things intended for health professionals and frightening the living daylights out of themselves.

Just how many health sites there are on the Internet is not known, but there are several million each for conditions like depression, anxiety, stress, cancer, dementia and alternative health. Some are specifically intended for doctors and assume a clinical knowledge that will not mistake symptoms of indigestion for those of stomach cancer.

Another hazard for the unguided cyperpatient is that there are also many commercial health sites run by companies which promise cures. In many cases there is no proof they work, and in some instances they could be potentially dangerous if mixed with other medication.