Sense & cyberchondria: the fine line of online self-diagnosis

self-diagnosisMost of us have done it at one time or another – felt a bit peaky and decided to trawl the internet with the ubiquitous Google search to find out what’s wrong.

But what starts off as a purely innocent quest to uncover the cause of your malady soon descends into a mind-muddling miasma of potential problems, illnesses and diseases.

So, when it comes to online self-diagnosis, the internet is both a blessing and a curse. For every accurate nugget of medical info, you’ll stumble across ten inaccurate ones.

Online self-diagnosis might yield immediate answers at the click of a mouse, but it could lead to more worries than it’s worth. People who self-diagnose on the internet have also acquired their own (although slightly pejorative) moniker: cyberchondriacs.

The only way, then, to judge how useful, or potentially damaging, taking the online diagnosis route can be is to look at its merits and its pitfalls.

Basics of self-diagnosis

Medical websites give the chance to check general health problems, summaries about the conditions and a list of the most common symptoms. The quality and accuracy of the information available is as vast and diverse as the content of the World Wide Web itself, and some sites are better and more reliable than others.

An obvious problem is that websites don’t show which symptoms are the most significant for your particular ailment. The patient might also not know what to look for or identify the important signs and signs a doctor would be able to tell you in person. For an illness which could have several outcomes, it could be tricky to narrow down the disease or cause.

Pros of online self-diagnosis

Anything that potentially expands your understanding of medical conditions and the human body is a good thing.

It’s also inexpensive, convenient and the information you get is almost immediate, even if you’re using it as research before you see your doctor. In this case it could also give you a heads-up when discussing the illness with your doctor (although this could have the adverse effect of complicating matters if you’re completely on the wrong track).

People often find it difficult and embarrassing to discuss their private medical problems even if it’s with their GP, so researching, diagnosing and discussing medical conditions online a more comfortable option.

Some people feel they get short shrift with their doctor and there isn’t sufficient time to clarify all their questions during the consultation. Carrying out online research is therefore a good and practical way of filling in the gaps.

It can also be a big weight off your shoulders if you get accurate medical information which reveals your symptoms and condition are normal and not serious.

Pitfalls of online self-diagnosis

On the flip side of the argument, diagnosing yourself online can be misleading and point you in entirely the wrong medical direction, causing unnecessary worry and panic about your condition and symptoms. If you’re going to use a medical website to check your illness, it’s best to follow up your research with a medical professional in person.

Nevertheless, there are a few good ways you can use medical websites to minimise the risk of unnecessary distress. For example, medical websites are generally operated by relatively simple databases which match conditions, ailments and symptoms, and are usually good at compiling a short-list of potential conditions so you can narrow down the medical possibilities.

Some causes might not be there and, consequently, it will be trickier to identify the symptoms. It’s also harder to find sites which identify multiple symptoms, so you’ll often have to compare them, which could result in an inaccurate amalgam of guesswork and supposition.

It’s also possible that you might not identify an illness that has several causes and symptoms, such as a fever, which could result in complications.

On the extreme end of the spectrum, using a medical website for self-diagnosis could also lead you to think you’re suffering from a serious medical condition you don’t actually have. It’s always more tempting to over-analyse and over-contemplate symptoms and illnesses, even if you’re not a hypochondriac. Losing weight doesn’t immediately point to cancer and more than having a spot is a malignant melanoma.

Crucially, an amateur online self-diagnoser doesn’t know what to look for because they lack the knowledge and experience of a professional medical background.  A doctor will ask the right questions and carry out the relevant tests, and many of the things your doctor will look for won’t be obvious to the medically-untrained eye.

To self-diagnose or not self-diagnose …

There’s no question that the internet is a fantastic tool for broadening your knowledge and understanding a medley of subjects – but when it comes to your own health, it’s best to be more cautious. It’s important that you consider the reliability of the source of the information, its accuracy and medical relevancy.

Ultimately though, it’s up to you. Just take a cautious, considered approach to the research and the information you glean, don’t be tempted to over-react, and use it as a good source of basic, preliminary information before consulting your GP and discussing it properly.

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