I’ll admit: I, too, have already googled ‘flu remedies’ or ‘acid reflux’ when I really did not want to call my doctor – but here’s why self-diagnosing on search engines is not exactly the most beneficial solution.
Surely the idea of staying at home beats the trek to a GP when you don’t feel 100%, so a consultation on Google seems very alluring and might even tell you what your doctor would have said! Besides, doctors are always busy and can be hard to reach if you haven’t booked an appointment, right?
The phenomenon of self-diagnosis is something I have noticed a lot throughout my life, but it’s been significantly more common now that I live in the UK. This is most probably due to the growing unrest amongst the patients, with insanely long waiting times to see any GP (my flatmate still hadn’t seen a medic to consult her about her injured foot after 4 hours of waiting), so ultimately anyone that can’t afford to spend the day in a waiting room has no choice but to consult a non-professional.
Self-diagnosis is much more accessible to the public, and the fact that the internet offers anonymous advice and emotional support (in case the symptoms seem too awkward to be checked by the GP you’ve been visiting ever since you were a toddler) is a comforting thought to many, but it could still backfire.
Dictionary.com has established a term for what most of us have already encountered, cyberchondria, the anxiety regarding one’s health caused by the attempt of online self-diagnosis. One too many times have I looked up ‘nausea’ or ‘dizziness’ and terminal diseases such as lung cancer were suggested... resulting in an inevitable panic session before reassuring myself that it is HIGHLY unlikely. Most symptoms are found in different diseases and not exclusive, so they can easily be mismatched by those who have no deeper understanding of human health, creating unnecessary stress.
(Worse even, the self-diagnosis could have been mismatched to a less severe condition and lead to severe conditions if not checked by a professional in time.)
Another factor other than comfort that influences the increase in self-diagnosis is the plummeting public trust in their doctors. Some media outlets suggest that doctors have financial incentive to perform unnecessary surgeries, leading to cases of inappropriate use of their degrees for profit rather than for the patient’s well-being. Or, in other cases, doctors have wrongly diagnosed or prescribed the patient, because as all humans do, they made a mistake.
Accidents like those also affect the public’s increasing trust in technology, although not yet the best idea. Nottingham University released a study on the reliability of medical advice on the internet and showed that doctors still perform better than the online symptom checkers that use trustworthy algorithms. What needs to be remembered at all times is that with the accessibility to information comes a surplus of information, of which the minority is correct. Less than 40% of the tested websites contained correct information, 11% spread false data, and the rest failed to address the question.
What tends to be forgotten is that doctors should be your most trusted health advisor for a good reason. While everyone has access to medical information nowadays, only those with a proper degree and training can tell the difference between certain conditions in patients. Moreover, they also practice preventive medicine and are detrimental in educating patients about how to preserve our health.
It is for all of the above stated reasons why maintaining a good relationship to your GP is extremely important. Not only will it make you feel more comfortable to speak about any concerns, but it also strengthens mutual trust and decision-making about treatments. Of course, you don’t have to race to see a doctor for every minor cold, they are already busy enough as it is, so online research can be beneficial for general well-being queries and non-emergencies. This also encourages us to be more informed about our bodies and more active in maintaining a better health.
Maura Lehmann is a student and former RTL Today intern who now regularly contributes as a freelancer.