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worried well

noun [plural]

people who are healthy but are worried about becoming ill and so take medication or see a doctor when they don't need to

'The worried well should be banned from paying for the flu jab privately at pharmacies, according to a leading doctor, as chemists begin to run out of the vaccine.'

The Telegraph 10th January 2011

Nobody likes the idea of suffering the symptoms of some horrible virus or other illness, so taking steps to avoid becoming unwell is a natural human response. However those people who are particularly anxious about falling prey to some nasty ailment, though perfectly healthy, may be tempted to seek the advice of a doctor, or even take medication in the belief that this will protect them. An expression characterizing this type of behaviour has recently hit the spotlight – people who act in this way are being described as the worried well.

the health care of those who are most vulnerable … has been compromised, it is argued, by the worried well

Worried well is not a new expression in English, but until now has remained relatively obscure. However in recent weeks it has gained considerable exposure in the UK in the context of a media-fuelled debate on the availability of winter flu vaccinations. The contention is that healthy people who have purchased the flu vaccine independently have compounded shortages in the National Health Service, thereby unwittingly making it more difficult for people at greater risk of becoming ill to get the vaccine. The health care of those who are most vulnerable – the very young, old or those with underlying health problems such as asthma – has been compromised, it is argued, by the worried well.

The expression worried well does seem to carry rather pejorative overtones – the idea that people are selfishly looking after themselves at the expense of others. The flip side however, and the reason this issue is so controversial, is that there is evidence to suggest that those who want to protect themselves are entirely justified in doing so. According to the UK's Health Protection Agency, nearly a third of those known to have died of flu this season have not been in any 'at-risk' group. Some people may want to get vaccinated so they don't pass anything on to a family member who is more at risk. Others are concerned about this season's flu because of the prevalence of swine flu, a virus which is more likely to seriously affect and kill younger, healthy people than normal strains. Factors such as these support the idea that the well have every reason to be worried.

Background – worried well

The expression worried well in fact dates back to 1970, and was coined by the late Sidney Garfield MD in an article published in Scientific American. Dr Garfield was the founder of one of the US's first voluntary pre-paid healthcare plans.

The expression is formed from substantive (i.e. noun) use of adjective well (= 'not ill'), which is pre-modified by adjective worried on the model of grammatically analogous expressions like e.g. the idle rich, etc.

It could be argued that the concepts underlying the expression worried well relate on some level to the phenomenon of hypochondria – worrying a lot about health and mistakenly thinking that you are ill. Hypochondria has its origins in late Middle English, based on the Greek words hupo ('under') and khondros ('breast bone cartilage'). Early physicians apparently found that many patients who claimed they had pain under the breast bone often turned out to have nothing wrong with them. A twenty-first century spin on this concept has given us the word cyberchondria – mistakenly believing that you are seriously ill after looking up particular symptoms on the Internet.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 24th January 2011.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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