Exploring The Side Effects of Self Diagnosing in the Digital Age

At no time in human history has access to medical information been so unfettered. Today, a lifetime worth of medical research can be perused in a single sitting at a computer. But with the myriad benefits of access to medical information come a potentially serious set of side-effects.

“Nowadays, younger patients especially are pretty quick to go online and look up something to see what it may be,” says Dr. Robert Hart of Ochsner’s Regional Medical in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Unfortunately, the problem with that is there are several things that can present with very similar symptoms, which can be misleading.”

This week, new data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed exactly how prevalent the practice of self-diagnosing may actually be.

Of the 81% of U.S. adults that use the Internet today, 59% admit to looking online for health information in the past year. “35% of U.S. adults say they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have,” the report shows.

And that’s where the danger lies.

“A physician who has years of experience with these same symptoms can take a more objective approach,” Dr. Hart admits. “Patients using the internet run the risk of over-diagnosing.”

An even bigger threat, however, is access to inaccurate information – information could be used to make poor decisions regarding treatment or a lack thereof.

“You could end up on a site that you don’t know where the data is coming from,” Dr. Hart warns.  “The unfortunate thing is you can go to a link and end up on a site that is not very scientifically based at all.”

In recent years, many have been quick to diminish or even demonize online medical websites and some mHealth services because of the perceived risks associated with self-diagnosis and self-treatment. But medical experts agree that risks can be greatly mitigating by understanding the difference between how technology in the field of health should be used as opposed to how we tend to use it.

Is it more cost-effective and convenient to reference an online medical journal than to visit a doctor? Absolutely. But no one is suggesting that this is the wisest course of action. In fact, the threat of self-diagnosis has prompted no shortage of key advancements in mHealth.

As MHW reported earlier this week, the latest research from Berg Insight reveals that approximately 2.8 million patients worldwide now use a connected home monitoring service pertinent to their healthcare. Telehealth services, in essence, have emerged as a way to better ensure adequate and responsible patient care through consistent mobile communication with trained medical professionals.

And despite the suggestion that online and mobile heath resources have dramatically escalated the rate at which patients endanger themselves through self-diagnosis, Pew suggests otherwise.

“Historically,” the report shows, “people have always tried to answer their health questions at home and made personal choices about whether and when to consult a clinician. Many have now added the internet to their personal health toolbox, helping themselves and their loved ones better understand what might be ailing them.”

According to Dr. Hart and other experts in the field, online resources, mobile apps, and related services should only be used for reference purposes. The important questions should still be left to the experts.

“Call the office and ask a question,” Dr. Hart advises. “These are questions that your doctor’s office has heard over and over, and they know the answers.  It can save you a lot of trouble in the end.”

Have you used online resources and mobile apps to self-diagnose your ailments?

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