Be wary of Dr Google!
Self-diagnosing using the internet has become so prevalent that there is a term for hypochondriacs that do so. Yvonne Evans finds that using the internet to find out what you are suffering from can be hugely harmful
Self-diagnosis is the process of diagnosing or identifying a medical condition in oneself. It can be assisted by the use of books, medical dictionaries, past experiences of yourself or others and the internet.
The act of self-diagnosis is potentially dangerous as a misdiagnosis could lead to inappropriate medical treatments. Because of these risks, self-diagnosis is discouraged by the government and members of the medical profession.
The internet is undoubtedly a useful tool for research, however. Previously, it took hours to sift through books just to find an appropriate paragraph on your chosen subject making it more difficult to self diagnose. It was much easier to see your GP. Nowadays, with just one click, all the answers are right in front of you. However, typing in your symptoms may present a serious illness when it can be something as simple as flu.
Investigating the symptoms is one thing, taking the diagnosis into our own hands is quite another. The chance of missing certain symptoms and the lack of objectivity in trying to self diagnose is far too risky and can potentially be more damaging than helpful.
Of course, there have been situations where a doctor has misdiagnosed and missed something crucial. Online medical sources can help put more power in patients’ hands as they can easily access information concerning their medical queries, which in turn can help doctors diagnose and treat their patients more effectively.
However, there is a plethora of information on the internet. In the hands of a hypochondriac, it could be disastrous. Search engines have produced a new breed of hypochondriacs known as cyberchondriacs.
Learning about rare or exotic diseases can cause delusions in cyberchondriacs and when this happens, all of a sudden they become more in tune with the symptoms they are experiencing that coincide with a disease rather than the ones that don’t.
Dr John Ball, a spokesperson for the Irish College of General Practitioners says:
“The dangers of using any internet tool for advice are reliant on the correct diagnosis being made. For example I had a patient who recently had diagnosed their child with hand foot and mouth disease on the internet but it was not the cause of their rash.
“The main disadvantage I find is the anxiety caused by some internet searches and unfortunately, anxious patients can often use it. For example, if you are anxious about a cough and search all the causes, will it help to know that lung cancer can present with a cough?”
With half a million of Irish people claiming some sort of social welfare payment, using the internet is a cheap way of knowing what is wrong with you but not the best way to get a diagnosis.
“If patients cannot afford to attend their doctor they should check their eligibility for getting a medical card or GP visit card. If not, then it is always a difficult one to decide if an opinion is worth paying for, in all areas of life whether it is your car, your house or your health.
“Some health insurers will offer some helplines and may offer some money back from GP visits. If an illness is effecting your quality of life and causing any uncertainty, then it will be hopefully worth a visit to your doctor even if reassurance is your main gain,” says Dr Ball.
If you do struggle to pay your GP and medical expenses, whether you are receiving social welfare or not, there are services out there that can help. Your local community welfare officer can offer advice and the appropriate forms to get medical or GP visit cards.
If you have a temperature it doesn’t necessarily mean you have meningitis just as if you suffer from headaches it doesn’t mean you have a brain tumour. The same can be said for mental health - if you are feeling sad it doesn’t mean you are clinically depressed.
If you do decide to continue to use Dr Google to check your symptoms there are some more effective ways. The most reliable way to use the internet when it comes to health matters, is to use it in combination with regular visits to a doctor. Also, be sure to visit reliable sites, such as hospital and government sites, or recognised associations and university sites.
Visiting various medical discussion forums can also give you an idea of what other people may be experiencing which could be beneficial to your research. But this information is subjective and has to be considered as such.
Relying on the internet for all our health questions can steer us in the wrong direction and in some cases cause panic. The internet cannot replace a medical health expert.