Is It Always Cancer? Doctor Explains 3 Challenges of Self-Diagnosis

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Today, with everything from heart rate to steps being tracked on smart devices, turning to online forums for health advice is easier than booking a doctor’s appointment. A recent survey by Kilo Health recorded 82% of respondents having tried health advice and treatments they found online. This statistic highlights the alarming trend of people seeking health information and self-diagnosing online.

“It has even become a sort of a meme – no matter your symptoms, if you’re googling them, you will always ‘find’ yourself having some serious issue such as cancer,” says Kasparas Aleknavicius MD, Head of Medical Affairs at Kilo HealthBut does online self-diagnosis always have a negative outcome? What are the challenges faced by healthcare professionals when patients do so?

How reliable is self-diagnosis?

“People who self-diagnose based on what they read online are likely to self-medicate too,” says Aleknavicius. “Sometimes this means they skip a much-needed doctor’s visit altogether.”

Approximately 61% of Americans looked for health information online in 2009. This survey by Pew Research Center also noted that 52% of the search queries were on behalf of someone else.

Often the information received for a particular condition is based on the highest-ranking Google search. People are more likely to browse through stories of similar symptoms, which results in formulating a hypothesis on a possible diagnosis.

“False information is more likely to be shared on websites and forums than accurate news,” explains Aleknavicius. “If people try out health advice they find online, they could put their health at further risk.”

This is primarily because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to symptoms people record. Often the first indications of possible illness are mild and may be related to something benign.

Many factors play into formulating a diagnosis. Some include current lifestyle, age, notable risk factors, and family history. Google does not consider these during a search for a particular symptom.

This makes self-diagnosis an unreliable way of medical management.

Challenges faced by healthcare professionals

A review of online surveys indicated that 15.49% of people searched for symptoms related to a medical condition. This was before they received a professional medical diagnosis. This review also recorded one-third of participants resorting to self-diagnosis over checking in with a doctor.

These form a large group of people not receiving the medical attention they probably require.

Dr. Google, as often referred to by medical professionals, poses an increasing concern for doctors. 

1. Spreading myths and misinformation

One of the main concerns for doctors is the spread of misinformation. The seamless sharing of information through social media and messaging platforms makes this possible. Online forums have made it relatively easy to blow symptoms or even treatment side effects out of proportion.

A review of literature that analyzed the spread of health misinformation noted a primary search topic: vaccinations and their side effects. The easy availability of such information has lowered vaccination rates. The main reason is a misinterpretation of possible side effects over life-saving benefits.

Pandemics, such as Ebola, have also seen rumors being spread on anecdotal evidence and misunderstandings among the general public.

This not only ostracizes infected populations but also delays life-saving treatment.

2. Escalating anxiety about one’s health

Generally, people are now more anxious about their health. Surfing the internet about symptoms one might have heightens this concern. This is frequently termed cyberchondria.

73% of respondents in a survey conducted among German general practitioners noted internet-related health anxiety as a concern in the practice of medicine. Two-thirds of these practitioners observed patients regularly confronting them with results they have viewed online. This was primarily because it led to confusion about their condition.

On a similar note, Kasparas Aleknavicius says, “Some patients come to my office with some background on their health concerns. Sometimes it’s a good thing – they can be more easily educated about their symptoms, the interdependencies, how they occur, and how they compound into syndromes and diseases.”

3. Delays in doctor visits

There is a vast availability of information online. This is why researching a solution online seems like the easiest option for a mild symptom.

Kilo Health’s survey supports this fact, recording 65% of respondents searching for their symptoms online before contacting a primary healthcare provider.

The COVID-19 pandemic added to these delays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded that approximately 40.9% of survey respondents delayed medical treatment, many of whom required emergency medical care. Their primary concern was related to the pandemic.

However, such delays in diagnosis can worsen outcomes.

Conclusion

Online research is tailored to provide specific information about a specific problem. This follows through even with health concerns. For a specific symptom, based on an online algorithm, the content with the most views positions itself first.

This doesn’t mean a lump is always cancer. The majority of such cases are usually benign. But every lump should be checked out by a medical doctor – Dr. Google just doesn’t cut it here.

“All of these insights should enlighten digital stakeholders on the work needed,” Aleknavicius aptly concludes. “We must make traditional telemedicine more accessible, digital apps more convenient, and seek to eliminate misinformation online.”

Rugile Stropute

Public relations specialist

Kilo Health

Mob. tel. +370 6 7442 633

rugile.stropute@kilo.health

Kilo Health is one of the leading digital health and wellness companies with 4+ million customers worldwide. As of 2022, it’s the second fastest-growing company in Europe on the Financial Times TOP 1,000 ranking, the second-fastest growing company in Central Europe on the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 list, and the most popular employer of 2021 on MeetFrank. Kilo Health has over 15 innovative digital health products, 600+ employees, and offices across 5 European cities. The company is also a member of the DTx Alliance, Matter Community, and HealthXL.

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