Hypochondriacs often provide comic relief in TV and film (see stubbornly bedridden Cameron at the beginning of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or Melman the anxious pill-popping giraffe in “Madagascar”). The doctor-patient relationship itself is also played for laughs: “Scrubs,” for instance, featured a recurring character named Harvey Corman whom an irritated Dr. Cox greets in one episode with his incurable bite: “And what imaginary disease is ailing you this time, my friend?” For a physician, these sorts of patients are frustrating to deal with, but not because their problem is a joke.
Real hypochondria, which today we believe is a form of extreme anxiety connected to depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, is serious, costly and debilitating. A brief perusal of hypochondria message boards will show you how terrifying the disorder really is. Driven by the frightening and unwavering conviction that every twinge, tingle and ache is a mortal threat, these patients can’t stop calling 911, making doctor’s appointments and demanding test upon test, drug upon drug. It adds up: Collectively, hypochondriacs cost our health system some $20 billion a year.