Thursday, February 19, 2009

Beyond Cyberchondria

Someone over at the BBC seems to have a "nose for news" concerned with the hazardous impact of Internet technology of the quality of health care. Last December the topic was "cyberchondria," introduced with the following introductory summary:

Health information online is breeding a generation of cyberchondriacs - people who needlessly fear the worst diagnosis after surfing the net, say researchers.

Today's report is based on a publication in a professional journal, which argues that virtual worlds differ from the physical world in ways that may jeopardize individual health:

People's health could be harmed by social networking sites because they reduce levels of face-to-face contact, an expert claims.

Dr Aric Sigman says websites such as Facebook set out to enrich social lives, but end up keeping people apart.

Dr Sigman makes his warning in Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology.

A lack of "real" social networking, involving personal interaction, may have biological effects, he suggests.

He also says that evidence suggests that a lack of face-to-face networking could alter the way genes work, upset immune responses, hormone levels, the function of arteries, and influence mental performance.

This, he claims, could increase the risk of health problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease, and dementia.

Since this is a news report, it does little more than summarize the key points from Sigman's publication:

Dr Sigman says that there is research that suggests the number of hours people spend interacting face-to-face has fallen dramatically since 1987, as the use of electronic media has increased.

And he claims that interacting "in person" has an effect on the body that is not seen when e-mails are written.

"When we are 'really' with people different things happen," he said.

"It's probably an evolutionary mechanism that recognises the benefits of us being together geographically.

"Much of it isn't understood, but there does seem to be a difference between 'real presence' and the virtual variety."

Dr Sigman also argues using electronic media undermines people's social skills and their ability to read body language.

The extent to which these claims are supported can only be determined by reading the full paper; and it raises the interesting question as to whether or not the referees for this particular journal included practicing clinicians, who might have their own experiences on how communication differs when one moves from the physical to the virtual world. When I tried to interpret the "cyberchondria" phenomenon, I did so by trying to address the nature of the conversations that take place over the topic of personal health, whether with professionals or with personal friends and acquaintances. It is unclear from the BBC account whether Sigman recognizes that what he calls "interaction" is necessary for effective communication but probably not sufficient. However, even if his publication raises more questions than it answers, it will probably be worth reviewing, particularly among those who recognize the problems of current health care practices and the serious need for reform in the entire system.

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