Whether it be a headache or an unusual stomach pain, you most likely have found yourself scouring the internet trying to find the explanation behind some type of medical issue that you have been experiencing. With easily accessible online resources such as WebMD, it is only a matter of seconds for someone to determine whether you are suffering from a common migraine or a much more serious health complication. Even less credential online forums such as Reddit or BuzzFeed may instill the thought that one might have an undiagnosed illness such as anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The issue of turning to the internet in these situations is self-medication, which could cause more harm than good.
Oftentimes, online symptom checkers are not accurate, especially when comparing them to a health care professional who has undergone special training. The Pew Research Center found that 35 percent of adults living in the United States have used the internet to self-diagnose a medical condition, using search engines like Google and Microsoft Bing, WebMD or even social networks. Out of that, only 41 percent said that a doctor actually confirmed the self-diagnosis based on internet research. While internet research may be an easy way for individuals to identify a health issue that needs to be addressed, there are more reputable options to use. Certain medical schools, government agencies and insurance companies have online symptom checkers which can be used to help clarify if one should seek medical attention. However, just like general internet sources, these checkers do not completely confirm a diagnosis. One study led by Harvard Medical School researchers showed that these general symptom checkers are better than regular internet resources, yet they still do not guarantee accurate diagnoses. Not only is using the internet as a self-diagnosis tool likely to result in inaccuracies, but it can also lead to misinformation regarding the complexities of diseases and the various factors that must be accounted for in the process of making a diagnosis.
The results of self-diagnoses are the most worrisome. The potential to incorrectly determine the cause of a medical issue and start undergoing self-treatment can seriously worsen one’s condition. This not only wastes an individual’s time and money but also can contribute to unnecessary confusion and stress. It is essential to realize that for every individual, certain symptoms can manifest in different forms, which means that a handful of general symptoms is not enough evidence to confirm a diagnosis. Additionally, the trend of self-diagnosis through social media is a growing concern. In most cases, a majority of social media forums and influencers do not have the professional medical training to diagnose individuals. Their ability to name common symptoms and suggest that individuals are suffering from a certain physiological or mental illness is irresponsible and dangerous. This provides an easy way for misinformation to spread, which can trivialize and further stigmatize illnesses. This highlights the importance of turning to health care professionals who have undergone the educational training needed to accurately identify these concerns. Not only do these professionals have more knowledge of the ways medical issues can manifest, but they also are more likely to take into account individual and family health history as well as other factors that have a role in diagnosing a medical condition.
Some may even turn to the illicit use of medications to aid their symptoms if they believe that they have correctly diagnosed themselves. Yet these medications can have adverse physiological effects if not used correctly, with potential for long-term, negative impacts. Antidepressants and antihistamines, two classes of medications used to treat varying types of anxiety disorders, are just a couple of examples of drugs that have varying side effects when taken. For example, evidence has shown that long-term use of antihistamines may increase one’s risk of developing dementia, and antidepressant side effects can include nausea, insomnia and agitation.
While using the internet to self-diagnose oneself may be an easy way to confirm one’s concerns of an underlying medical issue, this comes at a risk of dangerously misdiagnosing oneself. Being more aware of the unreliability of many internet resources is essential. It is important to use reputable sources and check the consistency of the information. And if there is a concern, a medical professional who has the appropriate training to diagnose you should be contacted. While the ability to contact medical professionals might not be accessible or affordable to some, it is worth it to speak to a health care professional about medical concerns in order to receive a more accurate diagnosis and not risk the negative consequences of dangerous self-diagnoses.
Sana Malik is a senior double-majoring in biology and philosophy, politics and law.