How self-diagnosis can lead you down the wrong path
By Barbara Pierce
We’ve all been there — wide-awake in the middle of the night with our heart rapidly pounding, a severe pain in our stomach, can’t swallow, or have another symptom that scares us.
The first thing we do is fire up our search engine and begin nervously Googling our symptoms. What could it mean? Am I having a heart attack? Appendicitis? Am I dying? Should I go to the emergency room?
The temptation for people to reach their own conclusions about their symptoms is strong and it can be dangerous. While sometimes Internet searches can lead to the right answers, other times it can cause problems.
That’s what happened to Debbie Kaufman of Hidden Hills, Calif. She told her story to CBS news: She felt a pain in her stomach, so went to an urgent care clinic. The MRI showed spots on her liver. The doctor didn’t provide details on what exactly they were.
“He’s like, ‘Well, you have about three to four nodules on your liver. We don’t know what they are. They could be cancer. They could be benign,’” she said.
She went home and searched the Internet on liver cancer. What she read told her the situation could only be bad or worse. “I was so upset, sad, devastated, thinking about what I need to do before I die,” Kaufman said. She was convinced she was dying.
When she finally got to a specialist, she learned the spots were benign tumors that could be easily removed.
“Here I was, panicking. I was so scared. I misdiagnosed everything; I wasted so much of my energy,” she said.
A new report suggests Americans are increasingly turning to the Internet to assess and monitor their health, with a significant 44 percent admitting they consult Google or other search engines rather than a medical professional. The research, conducted by The Tinker Law Firm of Seattle, is based on a survey of 3,000 adults.
This survey found that 49 percent of people in New York state prefer to diagnose online.
A spokesperson for The Tinker Law Firm says, “The Internet is a fantastic source of medical information, but in the hands of patients who have trouble handling uncertainty, it can be endangering. Our survey results show nearly half of Americans seek answers to their health concerns online, and many suffer anxiety because of this. If you have symptoms, don’t put off going to the doctor because you have consulted the Internet. It’s always best practice to seek a professional diagnosis.”
Read between the lines
There’s no shortage of health information available online. Yet studies have found that much of the information online is incorrect or out of date. Harvard researchers analyzed 23 online symptom checkers and found that only 34 percent of the time did they produce an accurate diagnosis as the first result. The kinds of conditions that Internet checkers diagnose the best are milder conditions like a cold or the flu.
“It’s better to use the range of symptom checkers that are offered by medical schools, insurance companies, and government agencies,” said Martin Morell, who owns and operates Arthritis Specialists in New Hartford. He specializes in the treatment of rheumatology-related diseases.
Morel recommends the following sites that are verified and good resources for specific problems:
— mayoclinic.org; for arthritis: arthritis.org; rheumatoid arthritis: rheumatology.org and the-rheumatologist.org; lupus: lupus.org; osteoarthritis: nof.org; celiac awareness: celiac.org; neuropathy: foundationforpn.org.
“If you notice the address ends in .org, this identifies the address as a credible source for information,” Morell added.
“Users should be cautious and not take the information they receive from online symptom checkers as gospel,” said Ateev Mehrotra, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, online on the Harvard Gazette.
“The Internet is a tool,” says Dr. Rajnish Mago online. “You can use the tool appropriately or you can misuse it.”
“I don’t think people should diagnose themselves, but they should use the Internet to become educated,” Mago says. He said patients should use the Internet constructively to research their symptoms and the possible conditions they can lead to in order to come up with questions to ask a doctor. In a way, this helps both parties.
“When you self-diagnose, you are assuming that you know the subtleties that diagnosis constitutes. This can be very dangerous, as people who assume that they can surmise what is going on with themselves may miss the nuances of diagnosis,” says Dr. Srnin Pillay, online.
The Internet is here to stay in health care. The information should be taken for what it’s worth — something that may be useful to help educate us as patients and possibly guide further questions, but not a substitute for visiting the doctor in real life for checkups and tests.