mHealth "cyberchondria" is a small price to pay

By Neil Versel
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Neil VerselA on “Innovations in Health Care” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Monday included a on mobile devices.

Most of what the Journal reported shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads Babyforyou.net.ua: Dr. Eric Topol, chief academic officer at Scripps Health in San Diego, thinks the pocket ultrasound is . Telemedicine monitoring technology has found its way on board ambulances. The Mobile MIM system, recently cleared by the Food and Drug Administration as a diagnostic radiology device, and AirStrip OB, which gained 510(k) clearance in 2009, are among the many products taking advantage of the iPhone’s impressive combination of power and portability. And telecom giant AT&T is working on “smart slippers” to help prevent falls by the elderly by warning caregivers of changes in the wearer’s gait.

The story is worth reading if for nothing else than Topol’s warning about one drawback of mobile and wireless health opening up so much information to physicians and patients: “We could create a whole culture of cyberchondriacs,” he cautioned.

Ah, cyberchondriacs. in the mid-1990s, cyberchondriacs are people who, after reading about a medical condition online, believe they exhibit enough symptoms to be worried. The rise of WebMD and its automated symptom checker at the end of the 20th Century brought on the first wave of cyberchondriacs.

I really thought the phenomenon had waned as people started to show a healthier dose of skepticism about things they read on the Internet. But it seemingly came back with a vengeance. In December 2007, CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen , “Are you a cyberchondriac”? A year later, the term “cyberchondriac” was a for Webster’s New World Dictionary Word of the Year. It’s also found its way as recently as 2009 into that barometer of buzz, . (Can I say “buzzrometer”? That’s just as made-up as cyberchondriac.)

All this has led me to believe that the term has as much staying power as, well, a chronic disease. You know, the same kinds of conditions that so many m-health apps are designed to track and treat.

Todd Park, the first-ever CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services, often speaks of “data liberación through innovative apps. If mobile developers succeed in freeing all the information trapped in healthcare databases—and in our bodies—then they may unleash another wave of cyberchondria. But they also could open up avenues to better health, lower-cost care and potentially some major breakthroughs in medicine.

Wouldn’t that be worth the trouble?

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