Dangers of self-diagnosis

  • Jan 17 , 2017

 Nowadays, people don’t prefer spending time and money on seeing a doctor. Rather they spend time on the internet, which has a plethora of sites that helps to diagnose one’s illness for free. Just answer a few questions about your age, body measurements and symptoms and the internet will do the rest for you.

While at times internet searches can lead to right answers, it can also lead to anxiety or what’s called cyberchondria – the unfounded concern over common symptoms based on online literature and research. Dr RK Singal, BLK Super Speciality Hospital, has a few things to share about the same:

1. How safe and successful is online self-diagnosis?

Self-diagnosis by search engine leads surfers’ to the worst. Even doctors are deeply sceptical about online self-diagnosis. Self-diagnosis can lead customers to fear and distress with a false or true diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening condition. Fear might also arise as self-diagnosis services often present a long list of serious diseases rather than common conditions and might prematurely suggest the need to visit a doctor.

2. What are the serious problems one can face if they rely on online diagnosis?

Self-diagnosis could also provide false reassurance, leading to a delay in seeking professional medical assistance and diagnosis. Furthermore, patients might dismiss what the medical profession has to offer or not take their advice seriously.

Photo Courtesy: Iq.intel.in

3. There are various symptom checker websites available online. Is it okay to rely on them?

There are various symptom checker websites available online that many people are increasingly relying on. These websites typically allow you to select your symptoms and then the software generally follows-up by asking you a series of questions in an attempt to narrow the number of possible results relating to your symptoms. Most of these websites will then list a number of possible ailments and/or conditions, usually ranked in order of how likely they are to match the symptoms you’ve just described.

This seems like a handy tool, right? A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and published in the British Medical Journal observed symptoms from 45 clinical cases and then used 23 different free online symptoms checker websites in the United States, England, Poland, and the Netherlands to check the accuracy of the diagnoses provided by the websites. The researchers found that online symptom checkers are wrong sixty-six per cent of the time. In other words, two out of every three diagnoses were incorrect.

4. Are there any particular websites one should avoid?

Web search engines such as those provided by Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft is more frequently used by consumers to access online medical information. In response to a query for one or more relatively common symptoms, web search engines may retrieve pages that contain alarming content that can alert consumers to the possibility of serious illnesses without providing information about their likelihoods versus benign explanations. Web sites such as WebMD and MayoClinic can provide valuable healthcare information to non-expert consumers about whether their perceived symptoms might indicate a serious condition, or whether such fears are unfounded.

5. When is it okay to check online for symptoms?

Symptoms and their meaning could be looked but web search should not be used as a diagnostic procedure, where queries describing symptoms are input and rank and information of results are interpreted as diagnostic conclusions

6. What is your take on e-doctors? Is it a blessing?

Telemedicine can be defined as the use of medical information that is exchanged from one place to another via electronic communication to improve a patient’s overall health and wellness. Relying on a growing variety of applications and services, telemedicine uses technology to make the real-time interaction between patient and medical practitioner more frequent and convenient and offers numerous benefits as a supplement to traditional in-person medical care.

First, many people find it difficult to travel to clinics, hospitals or doctors’ offices for any number of reasons. Whether travel restrictions or heath-related or simply due to the logistics of living in a rural setting, telemedicine can be a great option for those with unique physical challenges or those who simply find it difficult to receive traditional in-person medical care. By utilising video conferencing and other telemedicine technology, both healthcare practitioners and patients can reduce the costs associated with regular in-person doctor visits.

Remote medical technology provides an increasingly popular way to reliably administer preventive medicines and manage chronic conditions. More commonly, telemedicine is utilised as an urgent care of emergency alternative. Patients suffering from low-acuity ailments like a sinus infection or UTI can quickly connect with a doctor licensed in their state to discuss their medical history and current symptoms with a healthcare practitioner, who can then provide a treatment plan as well as a prescription (when medically necessary.)

Telemedicine can also be used as a means to monitor discharged patients in order to continue tracking their recovery process - thereby facilitating even greater communication between physician and patient.

In fact, research shows that the use of telemedicine technologies can result in fewer hospital re-admissions, increase the likelihood that patients will accurately follow prescribed courses of treatment, and contribute to a patient’s faster overall recovery than not receiving telemedicine assistance. While symptom checker websites may be a quick and easy alternative to scheduling an appointment to see your doctor, they come nowhere near providing the level of care you can receive through an online exam.

Photo Courtesy: Live Clinic

7. From your personal experience, what are the ailments a patient is likely to Google medication for?

Abdominal pain, back pain, blood in stool, chest pain, cough, diarrhea, dizziness, fatigue, fever, headache, vertigo, joint pain, etc.

8. At what point do they seek help from a proper physician?

People who self-diagnose by search engines usually go late to see a proper physician or when their symptoms get worst. At this moment they even might require hospitalisation.

9. Would you say that this trend could be potentially fatal for a patient?

Self-diagnosis could provide false reassurance, leading to delay in seeking professional medical assistance and diagnosis. Furthermore, patients might dismiss what the medical profession has to offer or not take their advice seriously.

Case study:

According to Dr R K Singal, once a patient named Manoj Sehgal had come to him complaining a severe headache. “The patient told me that he thinks he has a brain tumour, but after diagnosis, we found that a headache was due to prolonged sore throat and rhinopharyngitis (common cold). The patient visited me after a month of self-diagnosis through an internet. Whatever he found out on the internet made him believe that he has a brain tumour. People from the age group of 25-40 are more hooked on to the internet because it is more easily available nowadays. Such self-diagnosis through the internet only increases the anxiety of the patients and nothing else.”

Another danger of self-diagnosis is that you may think that there is more wrong with you than there actually is. For example, if you had insomnia, inattention and depression, you may believe that you have a sleep disorder or major depression. However, major depression can account for all of these symptoms. Thus, you may make things worse by worrying more as well.

Self-diagnosis is also a problem when you are in a state of denial about your symptoms. You may think that you have generalised body aches that started when your mood got worse, but a doctor may elect to do an EKG for chest pain that reveals possible coronary artery disease. You may have been trying to avoid the chest pain or you may have minimised this.

Also, there are certain syndromes that may not seem like problems to you even though they are very disruptive to your life. For example, with delusional disorder people do not think that they are delusional and because they are not overtly psychotic, they may not think to report paranoid symptoms that add up to delusional disorder. Also, many personality disorders are not spontaneously reported since they are usually problematic to other people.

Then there is the fact that we can know and see ourselves, but sometimes, we need a mirror to see ourselves more clearly. The doctor is that mirror. By self-diagnosing, you may be missing something that you cannot see. Thus, self-diagnosis can have tremendous negative repercussions on the patient. For this reason, while reading is helpful and informative, it is always best to discuss your impressions with a doctor before you decide on the treatment you want.