The risks of self-diagnosis and online symptom checking

Virtual healthcare has been adopted on a larger scale during the COVID-19 pandemic as many people access healthcare providers remotely. However, easy and convenient access to technology means some people are choosing to bypass healthcare and Dr. Go directly to Google with an online self-diagnosis.

Here’s a common scenario: Imagine someone is sitting at home and suddenly their head starts pounding, their eyes start itching and their heart rate increases. They grab their phone or laptop to quickly google what might be wrong.

Search results can provide specific answers as to the cause of the person’s symptoms. Or the research could falsely suggest they are on the road to an untimely death.

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

Online health information has taken on new meaning during the pandemic, as the use of online sources to assess symptoms of COVID-19 and self-triage has been 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 use Google search to diagnose themselves. In 2020, 69% of Canadians used the internet for research. health information and 25% used online sources to track their fitness or health.

Virtual care and online self-diagnosis share some beneficial properties such as: However, the main difference between virtual care and Google search symptoms is that online self-diagnosis does not involve direct communication with a doctor.

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

Google symptoms and self-diagnosis can increase health anxiety.
(Shutterstock)

Over time, people can use the internet to improve their diagnosis. Online resources can provide information and support for a specific condition. They can also be helpful for people with persistent symptoms who have not been able to get a diagnosis from healthcare professionals.

Using the internet to learn more about a condition after it has been diagnosed by a healthcare provider can be helpful and reduce the stress of a diagnosis if the websites you visit 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 that focused on the spread of fake news on social media found that fake news spread faster and more widely 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 experiencing high levels of health anxiety through researching symptoms on the internet.

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

There is also a danger of becoming so sure that one’s diagnosis is correct that it is difficult to accept another diagnosis from a doctor. Misdiagnosis can even be very serious if it does not lead to the detection of a possible heart attack, stroke, seizure or tumor.

Other risks can include increased burdens on the patient and physicians, ineffective medication intake or mixing, and increased costs for treatments or medications that may not be needed.

Social Media and Mental Health

Social media has given people a voice to share their personal remedies and alternative 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 impact health decisions.

In 2018, a Canadian Internet Usage Survey examined reports of the negative effects of social media use. It found that over 12% of users reported feeling anxious or depressed, frustrated or angry, or envious of other people’s lives.

Conversely, social media has also allowed people with mental health problems to feel united by sharing their experiences and support. However, it may also have contributed to the self-diagnosis (and possible misdiagnosis) of mental health problems such as anxiety and personality disorders. This can put people at physical and mental risk if it leads to inappropriate treatments.

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

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