Medical Advice 101: The Problem with Self-Diagnosis

The first thing we do when we feel a tickle in our throat is run to the computer for online medical help. In fact, 60% of health and wellness searches are performed to diagnose a specific medical issues, whether it’s regarding a cold, a strange bump, or a headache that won’t quit.

It makes sense to put our trust in the internet; after all, if there’s a problem with our phone or a home repair problem, the internet usually has an answer (along with helpful how-to videos). And with so many medical sites available at our fingertips, it makes sense that the web would have the answers to our medical questions, including our current ailments.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s more important than ever to rely on the help of medical professionals — not Google. While there are plenty of well-meaning people out there, the internet is rife with false information and unsubstantiated claims. From question forums to social media posts to websites that seem genuine, you never know whether the information being shared is fact or fiction. The wealth of false information orbiting the web can confuse even the smartest of individuals, many of whom know to take internet claims with a grain of salt.

Unfortunately, it’s become increasingly common to rely on the web to help diagnose our symptoms. Without universal healthcare, this is one of the many ways that uninsured people can help get a grip on their symptoms and take actions to prevent their illness from getting worse. On the other hand, searching for symptoms online can also make a small problem seem much bigger than it actually is.

The internet is a great place to sell goods and services, but its ability to give expert medical advice is exceedingly rare. Looking for lower back pain relief products is one thing — diagnosing yourself with a spinal injury by reading a few articles from Reddit is another.

Here are some of the most common dangers associated with researching your symptoms via online medical help.

It causes unnecessary anxiety

Let’s be honest: some of the articles we read online can be downright terrifying. A small headache could be a symptom of a parasite while a simple cough could be the start of dying from COVID-19. There will be plenty of other sites that give better advice, explaining that your headache could be because of allergies or stress, but those terrifying results will always swim in the back of your head.

The fact is, very few people know how to perform research online and most articles sensationalize their pieces for the sake of high click-through rates. The more dramatic the story, the higher the traffic to someone’s site. But even if the symptoms aren’t sensationalized, in some cases, they might be downright wrong.

Keep in mind that unique health situations are rare: the headache is probably due to stress, not because you have a tumor growing on your brain. The simple cough? As long as it doesn’t have other symptoms pertaining to coronavirus, it’s likely a small cold or allergies — it is finally spring, after all. Regardless, performing research for online medical help on your own might be enough to send you straight to the emergency room even though your symptoms make this visit unwarranted.

Anxiety and fear are two of the most common emotions surrounding self-diagnosis online. According to studies reported by Women’s Health magazine, more than 50% of the people who try to self-diagnose their symptoms online feel more scared after their search. And should those individuals already have issues with their mental health, be it generalized anxiety disorder, ADD, or depression, this fear can grow even worse. When someone is bombarded with so many resources — literally billions of results — there are bound to be a couple of options that conflate their symptoms to rival deadly diseases.

And when we start with a few seemingly relevant articles that might answer our question, it’s human nature to keep searching for other answers “just in case.” Between misinformation and a simple misdiagnosis through online medical help, there are plenty of reasons that the internet should not be used over a medical doctor, experienced orthodontist, or skin care specialist.

The beauty of the internet is that anyone can use it, for better or worse. Take everything you read with a grain of salt and trust the opinion of your doctor over anything you read online.

It can prevent you from seeking the help that you need

Few people actually enjoy going to the doctor. While these medical professionals are essential to maintaining our health, the thought of being poked and prodded by someone who’s basically a stranger rarely sounds appealing. On top of that, scheduling an appointment will take time out of your day and few people want to throw a wrench like this in their daily routine.

This attitude toward going to the doctor is a problem on its own, but it’s made even worse by those who self-diagnose using tools on the internet. Just like people will freak out over terrible news (ie. your headache is cancer), many people will write off more serious issues as something incredibly common. If you have all the signs of COVID-19, chalking it up to the common cold can do more harm than good. This nonchalant attitude can cost you if you’re not willing to go to the doctor to review your symptoms. Of course, there’s usually no harm in waiting for a couple of days to see if your symptoms get better — but if you’re approaching a week and your symptoms haven’t lessened, visiting a doctor will always be in your best interest.

Keep in mind that some symptoms of COVID-19 look different from person to person. Typically, the earliest symptoms are losing your senses of smell and taste but this hasn’t yet been a definitive symptom. According to WHO (the World Health Organization and one of the leading sources of online medical help), if you’re experience any of the following symptoms, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor:

  • Fever (of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Dry cough (with little to no congestion)
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing (but only in particularly severe cases)

Right now, there are more than 75,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States alone. As we approach the peak in mid-April, it’s more important than ever to practice social distancing. The vast majority of cases (at 80% so far) have recovered from COVID-19 without the need for specialized care. However, those who have weakened immune systems due to underlying illnesses, old age, or for those who are particularly young, specialized treatment may be necessary.

On the other hand…it can lead to unnecessary treatments or expensive testing

For those who become increasingly alarmed when Googling their medical health issues, some may rush to the doctor. Even when the medical professional assures the person that their symptoms are nothing serious, some people will only be placated if extensive testing is performed.

This might seem dramatic, but you don’t have to be a hypochondriac to fear for your health, especially if this is the first time you have encountered this worrisome symptom. That person with a ringing in their ears might demand an MRI test to ease their anxiety while that person with tooth pain demands an X-ray when all they needed were dental crowns. These tests might seem harmless enough, but they can swiftly become a problem, especially during pandemics like the one we are experiencing right now.

There are a few problems with unnecessary testing:

First, it takes vital resources away from the people who need them most. If a flood of sick people go to the doctor and demand COVID-19 testing, but fail to present any of the symptoms, this can cause people who are experiencing the necessary symptoms to delay visiting a medical facility. It can also cause delays in results and take away resources for the people who really need them.

Another issue with unnecessary testing is that these forms of testing are often expensive. Getting an MRI or a CT scan is not cheap. Sure, adults can do what they want with their money, but many will inevitably put a financial burden on the rest of their family who just wants to help. In some cases, concerned adults will drive themselves into bankruptcy when all they really needed was a trip to the chiropractor. Perhaps, more importantly, it’s unethical to allow someone to waste their money unnecessarily when there are plenty of resources available to quell their fears.

Of course, it can be hard to determine if you really need chiropractic benefits or are suffering from a more serious health issue. But doing this research online will blur these lines and send about anyone into a panic. Since most search engines don’t discern between results (resources are made available based on SEO tactics, including keywords and site reputability), any number of links you click on may include false or misleading information.

When the internet is good

Keep in mind that the internet isn’t all bad. There are a few essential resources that you can use to actually receive online medical help. While these sources won’t be able to give you general dentistry services in the home, talking to medical professionals can help you realize if you need to seek out medical help in person.

There’s no doubt that the internet has become a necessary tool and medical facilities have taken note. Nowadays, visiting a virtual doctor through online telemedicine options has become the norm. These services can get you into contact with a real medical doctor, one that you can talk to and message directly. While they won’t be able to check your temperature or feel that strange lump, speaking to a medical professional directly can help you lay out your symptoms and determine whether you actually need to visit a medical facility. In many cases, virtual doctors can even write you prescriptions. This makes online medical help essential for those with mobility issues or people who live far away from their medical provider (like students studying abroad or those who travel for their jobs).

In some cases, online medical professionals will even upload informational videos for people waiting for surgery or other important medical procedures. For example, those worried about surgery can have their fears assuaged by viewing a reference video on what the recovery process will entail. Online medical help can take many forms, but relying on information from practitioners is the best way to stop the spread of misinformation.

Like most helpful tools, the internet can be both good and bad. When you’re seeking online medical help, be sure to rely on reputable sources and medical professionals to prevent self-diagnosis from sending you into a panic.

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