Going online to search for health information may not be a good idea for people who fear uncertainty, according to a new study.
For these people, the false belief that they suffer from a serious disease (hypochondria) can worsen as they scour the Internet in an attempt to pinpoint symptoms, a Baylor University researcher found.
"If I'm someone who doesn't like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, go to the doctor more frequently and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities," Thomas Fergus, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, said in a university news release.
"If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that's the cause of the bump on my head," he said.
Persistent fear about having a disease can trigger worries about potential medical bills, disability and job loss, which can lead to even more Internet searching, doctor visits, unnecessary medical tests and stress, Fergus said.
His study included 512 healthy men and women, with a mean age of about 33. Fergus assessed how online searches for health information affected their anxiety and how they responded to statements such as, "I always want to know what the future has in store for me" and "I spend most of my time worrying about my health".
The findings were released online in advance of print publication in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.
Although people having unfounded fears about health is not new, the overwhelming amount of online medical information may be more disturbing than what people read in medical manuals or get directly from a doctor.
"When you look at a medical book, you might not see all the possibilities at once, but online you're presented with so many," Fergus said.
Previous research has found that about eight of 10 American adults seek health information on the Internet.
The American Academy of Family Physicians offers advice about finding health information online.