Though the ease of the internet’s diagnostic abilities may be appealing – and completely appropriate for seeking home remedies for something like a cold sore – the spread of misinformation and misinterpretation through online medical sites and chat groups can have serious consequences. Beyond weakening patient-doctor relationships and causing unnecessary stress, as discussed in Part I of this series, the health concerns for patients who self-diagnose are very real, and potentially very dangerous. In this second post, the focus will be on those dangers as well as what both patients and physicians can do to ensure that everyone is receiving accurate and complete diagnoses and proper treatment.
The Risks When Self-Diagnosing via the Internet
The most common risk associated with self-diagnosis it that individuals treat something they don’t have, which can at best result in unnecessary costs and at worst lead to serious, life threatening consequences. A Harvard Medical study determined that online symptom checkers accurately diagnosed symptoms only 34% of the time, so the majority of those who self-diagnose online are at risk for a variety of repercussions. After reading online about all the potential conditions their symptoms could indicate, patients will often worry excessively and spend more money trying to self-treat. On the opposite end are those who those who are either in denial about the potential seriousness of their symptoms or are convinced they have an easily treated, mild problem after reading through the options Google provides them with. Sudden vaginal bleeding could be dismissed as an irregular menstrual cycle, something not worth contacting a doctor about, but if it turns out to be cervical cancer months later, it may be too late for the lifesaving treatment available for early diagnosis.
One of the most serious kinds of misdiagnosis is misinterpreting psychological symptoms as psychiatric ones. For instance, if you self-diagnose a panic disorder, you may miss the fact that you have an irregular heartbeat that needs to be treated separately. Similarly, if an individual decides after some research that they suffer from a personality disorder or depression, and treat it simply with over-the-counter drugs, they can be oblivious to a potential brain tumor or other psychological diagnoses.
What can we do?
When practiced responsibly, the internet can be a beneficial tool for finding answers to medical questions. Studies have found that the most reliable medical information comes from government websites, and to combat inaccurate medical information, medical associations, such as the Cleveland Clinic, are sharing health tips and clinical research information through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. Using sites like these are a much more reliable way of finding solid, fact-based medical information. Additionally, make the effort to call your doctor or make an appointment if you have concerns. Write down your symptoms and questions, and go straight to a dependable source. Trust is essential in the physician-patient relationship; if you value the opinion of those on the internet over those of your doctor, you should find another doctor. In turn, physicians can express more interest in their patients’ online research, informing them of good sites to use and warning them of potentially harmful ones. Finally, as a patient, it’s important to pay attention to your body, to notice symptoms, but don’t immediately assume the worst.
Being involved in determining your own health is empowering and beneficial to creating more informed conversations between doctors and patients. However, the information fueling a patient’s involvement needs to be correct and must be approached with an open mind. As modern medicine continues to evolve in the age of accessible facts and a plethora of opinions, it’s important to remember when a true expert is needed, and where they can be found.
 Siedman, Bianca, “The hazards of self-diagnosis on the Internet,” CBSNews.com, Sept. 22, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-hazards-of-self-diagnosis-on-the-internet/
 Abbasi, Jennifer, “The Dangers of Using Google to Self-Diagnose,” Womenshealthmag.com, May 29, 2015, http://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/cyberchondria-0
 Pillay, Srini, “The Dangers of Self Diagnosis,” Psychology Today, May 3, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/debunking-myths-the-mind/201005/the-dangers-self-diagnosis
 Buck, Stephanie, “What Doctors Think About Your Online Health Searches,” Mashable.com, June 15, 2012, http://mashable.com/2012/06/15/online-medical-searches/#m5q8QKSQaSqH
 Abbasi, “The Dangers of Using Google”