You’re going about your normal routine when an unusual stomach pain hits you out of the blue. It still hasn’t gone away an hour later – maybe even weeks later – and you know something’s off. What’s the first thing you do?
If you said ‘Google it,’ you’re not the only one. According to Pew Research, one in three of us would head to the internet for information before calling our doctors.
A study by Roy Morgan dug a little bit deeper, finding that about 40% of those turning to Dr. Google do head to the doctor, sooner or later. This figure hasn’t changed over the past five years, which suggests that ultimately, consulting Dr. Google doesn’t affect whether or not we actually visit our GP.
In saying that, there are still some serious dangers associated with self-diagnosis. While new online tools have made it possible to get medical advice over the internet, these websites and apps aren’t meant to replace your GP. On the other hand, how do you find a GP you like and trust?
Let’s start by looking into why so many of us are going online to self-diagnose.
Why patients self-diagnose online
Going to the doctor isn’t exactly convenient for most people. Often, there is a significant cost involved, not to mention significant wait to see a good doctor you trust. One appointment can lead to many, and this is where it gets challenging, both for our schedules and our wallets. We know our health should come first, but multiple trips to the doctor can get tedious. Sound familiar?
Then there are other factors to consider: will you have to take time off work? Who will look after the kids? Is there even any point in going if the illness is something that will take care of itself? If I’m referred to see a specialist or have expensive tests done, will I be able to afford it?
Besides these very real roadblocks, there’s also the fact that many people simply don’t trust doctors. We know that the health system in Australia is under strain, and that means doctors are overworked. How can people be sure that their doctor won’t rush through their appointment, that they won’t just be one more name on a list?
These are just some of the factors that lead people to self-diagnose medical symptoms online, which can be a very detrimental move. After all, just because someone is good at the internet doesn’t mean they’ve been to medical school. However, another reason that people seek health information online isn’t to self-diagnose, but to perform self-triage. It’s a step in the process of deciding whether their symptoms warrant a visit to the doctor.
The dangers of self-diagnosis
When self-diagnosing an illness or condition, an inexperienced patient is unlikely to see the whole picture. For example, some symptoms of depression—tiredness, headaches, sleep issues—could also be symptomatic of Lyme disease, diabetes, and anemia.
A diagnosis is not always clear, even for medical professionals, and it’s their experience, knowledge, and training that makes all the difference.
Another danger of self-diagnosis is that you can quickly persuade yourself that you have a very serious illness. This can cause undue fear and panic, which isn’t helpful, especially if you’re sick.
The flip side is also true: if you’re in denial about the severity of your symptoms, you can use the internet to convince yourself that there’s nothing to worry about.
If you suspect that you’ve got a specific illness, your internet search could serve to support your hypothesis—which, not being a medical professional, is not grounded in fact. Users should keep in mind that not only could they land on an incorrect diagnosis, but they could also find harmful advice.
The advantages to seeking health answers online
With that said, there could still be some advantages to using online health services. People have a number of options at their disposal, from symptom checker websites to apps to pay-per-use sites where you can submit your query to a licensed medical practitioner.
A Harvard Medical School study looked at 23 different ‘symptom checker’ websites, which provide a list of potential diagnoses based on the symptoms entered. Half of the websites included the correct diagnosis among the top three results.
Online health services can be of help in a situation where people might otherwise seek zero information about their symptoms. If, in the process of self-diagnosing, a person is encouraged to visit a doctor when they otherwise wouldn’t have, then that is a positive outcome.
What to look for in an online health tool
If you do use an online health service, there are a few features that can identify a higher-quality website. Look for a tool that is kept up-to-date and impartial, so not affiliated with a particular business. The information should be provided by reputable authors and include details from authoritative resources, such as medical journals.
Keep in mind that online symptom checkers generally do not incorporate details about a patient’s medical history, and therefore cannot provide comprehensive information about an individual. Certain online services that request this information and evaluate it by an actual physician may be more accurate.
Popular online services
If you’re curious about using online symptom checkers and advice websites, here are five popular options. Remember that in the case of a medical emergency, you should always dial 000 immediately.
- HealthDirect Symptom Checker: An Australian government initiative developed to help users determine their next healthcare steps, such as whether they should go to ED or make an appointment with their GP.
- Isabel: Doctors around the world use the Isabel Differential Diagnosis Generator, which is what the Isabel symptom checker is based on. The service is designed to help users research their symptoms.
- Mayo Clinic: The Mayo Clinic is a well-known medical research non-profit based in the USA. It clearly states that its symptom checker is meant to provide information, not to be used as a diagnostic tool.
- Healthline: A popular health information site, the symptom checker provides basic information on your symptoms, along with what might be causing them and when you should see a doctor.
- Doctors On Demand: For a nominal fee you can consult with a doctor via video conferencing, and even have prescriptions delivered.
These websites are designed to provide a potential diagnosis, so users shouldn’t expect a correct diagnosis. These services tend to be more informative than simply entering search terms into Google, but not as reliable as visiting your doctor.
Online services may be a source of information, but they are not a replacement for your doctor. At the end of the day, advice from your GP—a professional who is trained to diagnose your symptoms—is always going to be more reliable and consistent than the results of an online search.
Perhaps using your handy research skills to find out more about your diagnosis or symptoms, can be helpful in addition to a doctor’s visit. Using both interchangeably can keep you well-informed without being misguided.