Here we go again.
You’re sitting in front of your computer with beads of sweat on your forehead as you wonder how many people will show up to your funeral. Your slight headache and sensitivity to light has been confirmed as stage four brain cancer according to some chick online who did one year of med school.
No, seriously. You’d be surprised how many people give themselves death sentences by taking matters into their own hands when they start developing weird symptoms. Although the web can come in handy when searching for at home remedies, more harm has been done by those who can’t seem to decipher the appropriate time to see a physician about their unexplained illnesses.
In fact, a 2019 study by Public Health Reports revealed that 74% of Americans flocked to the internet for guidance concerning their health before actually seeing a healthcare provider. This number has gotten progressively higher, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. In an even more recent study, 18% of Americans admitted to relying heavily on social media for healthcare concerns and guidance.
Maggie Williams, medical director of MDLIVE, one of the leading virtual care providers in the United States, offers her opinion concerning the matter:
“We live in an age of instant access, and we’re used to having a world of information right at our fingertips. But sleuthing for symptoms online—particularly when you’re not following up with a doctor—can be a slippery slope.”
The Real Problem: Inconsistency
The fact that anyone can publish content online, informative or not, should serve as an obvious notion not to trust everything on the internet. Still, many internet personalities use their charm and ‘apparent intellect’ to win the trust of followers.
A well-executed video or article can make any information presented seem “reliable.” Add in links and references to reputable sources, and the typical user might believe they’ve struck gold in sound medical advice. In reality, they are receiving facts from outdated studies and records, robbing them of an accurate breakdown of the symptoms they may be dealing with.
Let’s just face it: even symptom-checker websites lack the much needed access to patient records to make a well informed diagnosis. The internet, and the person using it to self-diagnose, are literally playing a guessing game with their health.
Doctors suggest that doing this regularly can lead to receiving the wrong advice for treatment or developing unnecessary stress thanks to the belief of having a serious illness when it’s simply not true. In another study, roughly 40% of people who use the internet to research their symptoms reported that they developed an extreme sense of anxiety about a medical concern before they even bothered using the internet to search them.
“On the other side of the coin, you might feel falsely reassured when you’re actually suffering from something that’s truly worrisome or life-threatening,” Williams added. “This could lead to treatment delays and put you at risk for poor health outcomes.”
Just Go To The Doctor!
This article isn’t to convince you to completely rebuke using the internet to educate yourself. There are plenty of websites that can at least start you off in the right direction, two of them being the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.
However, it’s still better to see a trusted healthcare provider, especially if your symptoms aren’t getting any better or worsen.
“Healthcare providers are trained to consider many things beyond a symptom list to reach the right diagnosis,” explained Williams. “Based on your specific situation, they can recommend appropriate tests and treatments to guide you toward the right course of action.”
Williams also warns users about the effects of Cyberchondria. Similar to hypochondria, this state of mind is characterized by the repeated use of the internet to search symptoms and medical concerns that leads to an extreme level of stress.
“This is something I see on a daily basis,” Williams said. “What starts as a casual search or specific health query evolves into a compulsion to search for new symptoms or validate symptoms they’re currently having.”
Worse than that, cyberchondria can instill a sense of fear and distress for real and trained healthcare professionals. Imagine being seen by an actual doctor, only to shun their medical professionalism because some random influencer says something different?
The real issue though, is simply not making time to see a doctor, even if symptoms are progressively getting worse.
“Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for people to take time to prioritize their health in the way that they should,” Williams admitted. From working long hours, running after kids, and other responsibilities, it can be difficult to take the time we need to see doctors when our we notice changes in our health. That’s part of the reason why the demand for virtual healthcare providers is on the rise. You can find a list of them here.
So don’t fret over the what if’s when it coms to your health. It’s always best to see your doctor as soon as you realize that your symptoms are making your everyday life difficult.