Dr Google: Should we be self-diagnosing?

Posted by Jacqui O'Rourke, 22nd January 2018
With pressures in all areas of the NHS it seems we are turning increasingly to the internet for answers.  I was very interested to watch the Tonight programme last Thursday night; Dr Google: Does DIY Diagnosis Work?

To help relieve pressures on GP services The Royal College of GPs ‘3 before GP’ mantra is now advising us, before we make an appointment with our GP, to consider self-care, to use our local pharmacist for advice and to access reputable web-sites, such as NHS Choices, to gather information about our symptoms and how we might help ourselves.

On the surface, this seems sensible; there are many minor ailments that we probably could self-manage without the need for consulting our GP and there are a number of reputable online sources of health information from the NHS and others such as Patient.co.uk that can provide us with the wherewithal to manage coughs, colds and other minor ailments.  However, we are not all skilled in the art of internet research, nor are we experts in identifying which of our symptoms are significant, which might not be so relevant and which of them could be construed as ‘red flag’ symptoms that require urgent medical attention.

How does the general public decide which websites are reputable and how do we filter the masses of information available?  It is easy to see how those who constantly worry about their health are going to research their symptoms online, come to the conclusion that they have a very serious (but rare) condition, and go to their GP anyway.   The Tonight programme explored the phenomenon of ‘Cyberchondria’ whereby individuals are constantly checking their symptoms online.  This is now a recognised condition in its own right:’Health anxiety’.  By trying to find a solution to one problem have we created another?

By contrast, my real concern would be that those people who really do have a serious health condition may not appreciate the significance of their symptoms which could lead to delays in diagnosis and treatment.  An example might be getting reassurance online that ‘feeling tired all the time’ isn’t too much to worry about when in fact feeling tired all the time, looking pale and passing dark stools could be a sign of something very serious.  How do we know which symptoms to ‘Google’ and at what point do we realise that all of the little niggly symptoms we have, when combined, are actually quite significant?

I believe there is certainly a place for informative websites and information technology in healthcare; we should aim to be as informed as we can.  The internet is a great source of arming oneself with relevant questions to put to health professionals about the symptoms and conditions we experience.  It would be foolish however to think that we know better than a medical professional with years of experience and training behind them.  I think that information technology in healthcare should be used in tandem with traditional healthcare services and a healthy dose of common sense.  When it comes to minor ailments like coughs and colds and limited diarrhoea and vomiting, particularly if you are otherwise fit and healthy, then self-care should be the first line of treatment.

However my advice would be, by all means look up your symptoms on line, but always seek medical advice before dismissing those symptoms or if you are in any doubt about their significance.

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