Is the internet the ultimate resource for self-diagnosis? To what extent can online searchers put their trust in the information gleaned from the World Wide Web? One’s efforts to try and solve a health issue via the medium of the internet could prove dangerous, as recent reports reveal. The irony is that a person may be launching a search with the hope of ruling out any particular health condition, but may end up feeling worse and scared that his/her symptoms may be indicative of something serious. This triggers anxiety and finally they end up with something called “cyberchondria”, according to experts. People are cyberchondriacs, if they leave the computer feeling worse after their search for a solution.
Self-diagnosis is dangerous in another way as well. Influenced by healthcare data found online, people may arrive at the wrong premises and fail to get treated for some really serious condition.
To go by the national survey results of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 35% of U.S adults have at one time or another relied on the internet to find out about a medical condition they or someone else might have. At least 46% of these “online diagnosers” said that they were motivated to see a clinician after finding the information they wanted online. 41% said that their online diagnosis was confirmed by their physician. Other findings of the survey include the following:
- Women, and young white adults that have a college degree or live in a home earning more than $75, 000 are more likely to go for online diagnosis either for themselves or for a loved one.
- One in four people said that they hit a pay wall when looking for a health info report. 83% of people who were blocked from accessing the info they wanted continued to search elsewhere for it.
- 77% of people said they used a search engine first for learning more about a potential diagnosis. Only 13% of people went directly to a health site such as MayoClinic.com or WebMD first. Just 1% said they surveyed their social network first.
Given that self-diagnosis via the internet is a stark reality, what advice/recommendations can physicians provide their patients?
- Primarily, patients must be cautioned about where they are going and who they are listening to. They should understand that everything on the internet is not in their best interests.
- Ask them to search for advice from experts in the field. Physicians can also give them instructions about the websites they trust most.
- Websites affiliated with academic medical centers or healthcare institutions usually scrutinize content with their expert clinicians and researchers. Sites that use too much of promotional material and ads are best avoided.
If positive changes are to be brought to healthcare, the patient must be empowered. It may not therefore be the right step to try and discourage online searchers. On the other hand, physicians can guide their patients to websites they can trust, obtain the right information and become educated enough to take the right decisions regarding their own health or that of their loved ones. It is the onus of healthcare providers to assist patients with the results of their online education by confirming that what they have learned is right, or correcting any wrong information they may have obtained. Some doctors believe that the optimum use of the internet is after a patient is diagnosed by a clinician. Patients can then search for more info about that particular condition.
Online diagnosis is here to stay in this new information driven world. Healthcare providers and patients can work together to build a healthier world, using the right internet resources in the right way.