A new survey by scientific freelance platform Kolabtree reveals plenty of us still seek medical advice from online sources, most often through a simple Google search. Incredibly, 43.2% of people use Google search as their first port of call before going to see a trusted health professional.
These people will type an issue into an anonymous search bar and conduct their own research on the web to diagnose an illness. A self-diagnosis often proves inaccurate and can be dangerous, with 26.9% of the same audience admitting they’ve misdiagnosed themselves in the past.
This new data from Kolabtree suggests previous studies on the accuracy of online diagnosis have gone unnoticed. In 2016, JAMA Internal Medicine found a doctor’s diagnosis to be far superior to that of a generic symptom checker.
The researchers concluded that in-person advice from a qualified professional is more accurate as doctors have access to patient history — a factor that can massively impact the outcome of the diagnosis. Despite this, people are still resorting to using Google. Why? Well, a number of factors can cause people to reach for their smartphone when they’re unwell.
We’ve become accustomed to receiving instantaneous answers — either from our friends on social media or from sources on the web. Because of this, we crave an immediate resolution when it comes to something as serious as our health.
Others may have lost trust in their healthcare system or simply find it difficult to book a doctor’s appointment. Whatever your motivation, if you’re weighing up whether you should take the web’s word or seek in-person advice, it’s best to do the latter. However, there are five scenarios when you should definitely ignore your urge to reach for Dr. Google. We’ve outlined them below.
1. When You’re Likely To Come To The ‘Worst-Case’ Conclusion
We’ve all heard of the term “hypochondriac”. In fact, the word may even be tossed about as a joke or a sly insult. However, being a real hypochondriac is no joke and can have serious implications for your health.
- Wrong Diagnosis — This is when a person assumes the worst possible scenario by jumping to the most drastic conclusion. They might read a web page about a specific symptom and only read the “in unlikely cases” section. After deciding the most severe illness must relate to them, they will convince themselves that they’re in dire need of medical attention or, in some cases, that their illness is fatal.
- Missed Diagnosis — This is when a person assumes the best possible scenario and often makes laidback, common conclusions. They might read a web page and be satisfied with the first few lines, thinking to themselves, “that sounds about right.” They most likely won’t follow up with a health professional, deciding that what they’re experiencing is a routine illness that will go away without treatment.
Either type of misdiagnosis is terrible. Those in camp A will often create a nightmare-ish storyline in their mind that can induce anxiety. Ultimately, this could negatively impact a person’s health and may make it deteriorate further. They’re also guilty of over-worrying, which is likely to exacerbate their problem.
Those in camp B, on the other hand, are in danger of ignoring a serious health problem that should be spotted in its early stages. It’s clear that hypochondriacs sit firmly in camp A. Misdiagnosis, in this case, can lead to something as severe as assuming you have terminal cancer.
As Debbie Kaufman tells CBS News, she thought the worst when she started to feel stomach pain. Assuming she had liver cancer, she changed her lifestyle and began spending special days with family members “while she had time”. She later found out this wasn’t the case.
However, Debbie had still suffered severe anxiety during the time she believed her fatal illness to be real. Whether you’re prone to panicking or taking it a little too easy, it’s much safer to see a qualified health professional before you make your own decisions about your internal health.
2. When You Haven’t Yet Learnt To Build An “Internet Filter”
Obviously, not all content on the internet is bad or necessarily false. But the average person’s ability — or lack thereof — to interpret and judge information online is what makes internet diagnosis dangerous.
Doctors, pharmacists, and health professionals all admit to using the internet from time to time to help inform decisions. Doctors will often refer to authorized websites of governmental or medical bodies to check recommended dosages when writing a prescription.
Nobody is above using secondary sources to assist them in making health-related decisions; the real crux is knowing which websites provide quality content. Commonly, people will have a poor “internet filter” when it comes to something as serious as health content.
These people can’t judge the authority of medical websites based on whether they have spammy adverts, spelling mistakes, or good formatting. Even sites that appear to be designed around the provision of health information can often be false, spammy, and untrustworthy, even if they don’t appear to be.
This is evidenced in how many symptom checkers — such as the popular WebMD — are entirely inaccurate. So is it okay for your local doctor to consult Dr. Google even though you can’t? Absolutely.
In recent years, doctors have come under scrutiny for using the internet to assist with diagnosis, as people have come to assume that this means a health professional is inexperienced or lacks knowledge. The truth is that all doctors are advised to check with medical bodies and authoritative sources to remove bias, human error, and false judgment.
The next time you see your doctor referring to his smartphone or desktop, be thankful — rather than angry — that your qualified health professional is taking an extra precaution to make sure their judgment is accurate. Also refrain from checking the internet yourself, unless you are familiar with the industry-standard websites that most hospitals and clinics use.
3. When You’re Looking For Advice On Mental Health
If you’re experiencing symptoms related to mental health, you should always seek in-person advice, regardless of how difficult this may be. When your judgment is off, it’s best to leave serious decisions to a professional who can assess the situation objectively and discuss the different options available to you.
Mental health isn’t a one-size-fits-all problem. While some people may find it necessary to use medication to calm the effects of their disorder, others may choose to take a holistic route and receive therapy. Some may use a mixture of both approaches.
In this respect, it’s essential to have a second party present to weigh up the pros and cons of your choices. A health professional will be able to draw on their years of experience with similar cases to outline the severity of your condition and teach you the different ways to handle it.
A scarier side effect of Googling mental health symptoms is coming across triggering content when alone. At your most vulnerable, you should avoid delving into unauthorized information discussing the severe impact of mental health.
To make sure that you aren’t prone to viewing this type of content, you should avoid using the internet and instead reach out to a trusted friend or family member for support. A further complication is added by the confusion between physical and mental illnesses.
Srini Pillay M.D gives a prime example of how someone with a panic disorder may be inclined to misdiagnose an irregular heartbeat by assuming that a physical symptom is always connected to their mental health.
If you have mental health issues, it’s a matter of self-care to go and see a doctor, as you may experience physical illness from time to time and will need a qualified professional to differentiate between the two.
Finally, as mental health has become less taboo and more commonplace, it has become easier to misdiagnose. Researching your symptoms or reverting to Dr. Google at the first sign of a low mood could make you come to a conclusion based on what seems popular or socially acceptable.
To figure out if you’re suffering from a long-term mental illness, or if you’re experiencing a temporary difficulty, you should always seek in-person advice, as doctors and medical staff have different techniques to assess the severity of your illness.
4. When You’re Taking Prescription Medicine Or Pregnant
As we’ve already established, general advice on the internet isn’t so trustworthy. However, if you’re taking prescription medication or you’re pregnant, it’s even more important to take precautions. It’s always best to check with a registered health professional if you have any ongoing medical conditions, as this can drastically change how an illness is treated. Pregnant women and those taking prescription drugs will need to have their treatment (and any medicine that may be required as a result) adjusted accordingly.
- During Pregnancy — So-called natural remedies are increasingly popular, but they could be harmful if taken while pregnant. Naturally occurring herbs and substances aren’t routinely tested in the same way prescription drugs are, and the strength, effects, and safety of each natural remedy product may vary depending on the brand that you buy. Herbs that you might see fit to use in foods — such as rosemary, sage, garlic, and ginger — can have adverse effects on pregnant women when large doses are ingested. Since herbs are potent stimulants, a large dosage of them could even interfere with your menstrual flow and cause other damaging side effects.
- Those on Prescription Medicine(s) — If you’re currently receiving treatment and you take prescription medicines, you’ll need to check in with a doctor or health professional before adding a new drug to your list. Each medicine has its own set of side effects and level of risk, and some, when mixed together, can present too strong a dosage or could make you drowsy, affecting your ability to perform basic tasks such as driving. Again, so-called “Drug Interaction Checkers” exist online — brought to you by the usual suspects — but these compatibility calculators, similar to those you might have used in high school to see how well you and your crush would get along, are untrustworthy. Plus, they often don’t allow you to specify your exact dosage. At worst, taking two incompatible drugs could be enough to make you overdose (if the particular drug contains similar substances) or it could cancel out the effects of an earlier drug.
While it might seem like a chore to keep checking in with your local doctor to ask whether different substances — or even lifestyle changes — are suitable for you, it’s a job worth doing. Your dedicated health professional won’t get frustrated at your returning visits, even if you do.
5. When You Think Your Symptoms Are Embarrassing
One of the main reasons why people avoid going to the doctor and search the web instead is because they’re embarrassed about their symptoms or the area of their body where they’re experiencing pain or discomfort. As awkward or embarrassing as it might be to visit the doctor about these types of problems, it’s something you must do. Why?
The most sensitive parts of our bodies are often the most vulnerable. Just as women might avoid their smear test when they reach their twenties, it’s well worth the mild embarrassment and discomfort for five minutes if it means spotting abnormal cells — or not — in the long run. Studies as recent as those conducted in 2018 show that some women still trust Dr. Google for symptoms relating to breast cancer, a specific type of cancer that can be treated if caught early enough.
Perhaps the best reason to visit the doctor is if you feel a strange sensation, lump, or bump in a private region, as this can spell significant trouble. When deciding to make a doctor’s appointment, you should always remember that qualified health practitioners are professionals. Their job is to treat patients and never judge them.
Less serious — yet equally embarrassing symptoms — can include sweating profusely or sexual problems. These issues can be simple to fix with the help of a professional, but avoiding treatment can have a far-reaching impact on your personal life and relationships. What’s the moral of this story? Five minutes of pain (or minor embarrassment) is worth a lifetime of gain.
Always visit a doctor if there is an issue causing you embarrassment — and remember, it’s nothing your doctor won’t have seen before. Even if there is nothing wrong with your health, speaking to a specialist should settle your worries and allow you to enjoy life as you would normally. Find out how many people in Britain are trusting Dr. Google over their actual doctor. Read Kolabtree’s Google Versus Doctor survey now.
Author Bio: Ramya Sriram is a UK-based digital content writer and marketer. She manages communications at Kolabtree, a London-based startup that helps businesses hire freelance scientists online. Her experience spans ten years in publishing, advertising, and digital content creation.
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