The risks of self-diagnosis and looking up symptoms online

Virtual healthcare has been adopted more widely during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people gaining remote access to healthcare providers. However, easy and convenient access to technology means some people may choose to bypass health care and see Dr. Google directly, with online self-diagnosis.

Here’s a common scenario: imagine someone sitting at home, when suddenly their head starts pounding, their eyes start to itch, and their heart rate races. They grab their phone or laptop to quickly google what may or may not work.

Search results may offer specific answers about the cause of the person’s symptoms. Or the research might incorrectly suggest that they are on the way to an untimely death.

As a researcher in the field of virtual care, I am aware that online self-diagnosis has become very common and that technology has changed the way health care is delivered.

Dr. Google Paging

Online health information took on new importance during the pandemic, when the use of online sources to assess symptoms of COVID-19 and self-triage were encouraged. However, the act of online self-diagnosis is not new.

In 2013, it was reported that more than half of Canadians surveyed said they used Google search to self-diagnose. In 2020, 69% of Canadians used the internet to search for health information, and 25% used online sources to track their fitness or health.

Virtual care and online self-diagnosis share some benefits, such as the convenience of not having to book an appointment, saving travel time to the doctor’s office, and avoiding waiting rooms. However, the main difference between Virtual Care and Google Symptoms is that there is no direct communication with a doctor during online self-diagnosis.

Some may choose to self-diagnose because they feel it gives them better control over their health, while others may find it helps them better communicate their symptoms to their doctor. Some patients may fear misdiagnosis or medical errors.

Over time, people can improve their diagnosis by using the Internet. Online sources can provide information and support for a specific medical condition. They may also be helpful for people with persistent symptoms who have not been able to get a diagnosis from medical professionals.

Using the Internet to learn more about a condition after it has been diagnosed by a health care provider can be helpful and can reduce the stress of a diagnosis if the sites viewed are trustworthy.

However, trying to select credible sources and filter out misinformation can be an overwhelming process. Some information found online has little or no credibility. A study looking at the spread of fake news on social media found that fake news travels faster and farther than the truth.

Risks of self-diagnosis

Risks of using online health resources include increased anxiety and fear. The term cyberchondria can be defined as a person suffering from high health anxiety due to researching symptoms on the internet.

Wrong self-diagnosis is also a danger, especially if it means not seeking treatment. For example, if a person confidently diagnoses their stomach pain as the stomach flu, they may be reluctant to believe their doctor’s diagnosis of appendicitis.

There is also a risk of becoming so certain that one’s self-diagnosis is correct that it is difficult to accept a different diagnosis from a medical professional. Misdiagnoses can even be very serious if they fail to detect a possible heart attack, stroke, seizure or tumour.

Other risks may include increased stress for the patient and physicians, ineffective taking or mixing of medications, and increased costs of treatments or medications that may not be needed.

Social media and mental health

Social media has given people a voice to share personal remedies and health-related stories. The number of active social media users in Canada has increased by 1.1 million since 2021. This raises the question of how people can be influenced by what they see online and whether this can affect health choices .

In 2018, a Canadian Internet Use Survey looked at reports of the negative effects of using social media. It found that more than 12% of users said they felt anxious or depressed, frustrated or angry, or envious of other people’s lives.

Conversely, social networks have also allowed people with mental health problems to feel united by sharing experiences and support. However, it may also have contributed to self-diagnosis (and potentially misdiagnosis) of mental health issues, such as anxiety and personality disorders. This can put people at physical and mental risk if it results in inappropriate treatment.

The reality is that online self-diagnosis cannot be prevented. But those who consult Dr. Google should be aware of the potential risks, confirm information found online with a health care provider, and ask health care providers for credible online sources of information about their diagnoses.

Taleen Lara Ashekianhealth science researcher and PhD student, Simon Fraser University

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Featured Image: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash

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