The Pros and Cons of Online Diagnosis
Most of us have done it - looked up Google for self-diagnosis or find out about a medical condition or symptom or to find treatments for ourselves or our children. The internet is packed with websites about health and medicine, some of which specialise in diagnosis and evaluating symptoms. How does you doctor react when you start telling him or her about your research? We all know about the varying quality of the information on the internet. Should we be reliant on this information of varying quality and how do we check that we asking the right questions?
Good medical advice is hard to get even from your doctor who may treat you as an imbecile who is not worthy of discussing the details with. Many doctors have poor communication skills and others like to have a quick turn around for their patents so that they can make more money. Others get annoyed when you ask for details.
Is Online Self Diagnosis Worthwhile?
It is therefore easy to understand why many people have sought advice and tried to self-diagnose their conditions online. In remote areas self-diagnosis via online tools using high tech devices for monitoring heart rate and blood pressure etc., is often the initial method of finding out about the condition before deciding what to do next. Heart rate monitors and blood pressure measurement devices and other tools are now readily available - why shouldn't we be using them and understanding what they tell us?
Self-Diagnosing on Medical Websites
Medical websites offer basic searches where users enter symptoms, and summaries about various condition which list the common symptoms. Some medical websites are better than others and it is your choice of which ones suits your needs. Another issue is the level of detail and how the information is presented. The usual procedure is to look up a disease or ailment for the key symptoms or to search for one or more symptoms and then look at the list of other symptoms and check which ones are present for your condition. Using this process the user will generally get a list of possible causes. The next step is to go back and get information about each of the possible ailments and to further check the list of symptoms and associated information. One immediate problem with this process is that medical websites do not show which symptoms are considered the most important or significant. Also there is some doubt about whether all possible aliments are listed, and you the patient may not know what to look for or the important signs and signals doctors use for in-person consultation. When there are more than one possible outcome it may be very hard to narrow down the cause or disease.
So What are the Pros and Cons of Self Diagnosis and the Pitfalls?
Pros of Self Diagnosis
- It is good to learn more about yourself and how your body functions
- quick to get information, even if you use it to do research prior to seeing your doctor
- helps you to discuss you condition with your doctor (but it may also hinder if you are on the wrong track)
- can quickly relieve stress when you find the symptoms are common place and not serious
- increasing trend for remote diagnosis, so the monitoring tools, such as heart rate and blood pressure monitors, are getting better and easier to buy and use at home.
Cons and Pitfalls of Self Diagnosis
Self diagnosis can be dangerous and lead to misdiagnosis and undue worry about your condition. You show always follow-up your search for information with professional in-person medical advice from your local qualified medical practitioner.
There are various ways that a self-diagnosis can give you incorrect information:
- The medical websites are run on fairly simple databases matching conditions, ailments and symptoms. They are generally good in getting a short-list of possible conditions but they cannot help much in narrowing down the possibilities. Some causes for the condition may be absent and it may be hard to specify the symptoms, especially in simple terms because of the jargon used. It is also hard to find sites that deal with multiple symptoms. This can only be done by enquiring about the disease and getting the list of symptom, and comparing this with the list for another possible ailment.
- Failure to diagnose a serious illness which causes general symptoms such as a fever, which could have multiple causes.
- Self-diagnosis that mistakenly suggests that you have for extremely serious disease that you don't have. Over diagnosis is a real problem even for those that are not hypochondriacs. We worry and we tend to think the worse, which means that we tend to look for more serious ailments rather than the minor causes. If you have unexplained weight loss, it doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer. This type of over-diagnosis of serious illnesses, a kind of internet hypochondria, has been given its own name 'cyberchondria' (i.e. hypochondria developed in the cyber-world).
- Failure to list all the symptoms or to miss key symptoms and signs because you the patient don't know what to look for. Only your doctor has the experience and knowledge to properly perform the sequential process of diagnosis, to ask the right questions and to do the correct series of test. Another reason is that you may not see or be aware of all your symptoms. A trained doctor who knows what to look for in tracking down the cause through a list of symptoms will know what to check next. Many of the things your doctor looks for may not be immediately obvious to your untrained eye.
Online Medical Diagnosis - The Online Second Opinion Option
Online medical diagnosis refers to web sites that provide access to live and real doctors available on the internet that will answer questions and suggest tentative diagnoses to symptoms. They are often used by people to get a cheap second opinion or to confirm and learn more about the condition diagnosed by the face-to-face doctor. If you have serious complaint then it is best getting a second opinion from another doctor in-person - its not worth tasking the risk of misdiagnosis. If you have a hard-to-diagnose minor ailment then these services may help to identify other possibilities that your in-person doctor did not mention to you. These Online Medical Diagnosis services have many limitations and potential pitfalls that you should be aware of. It is hard to determine the capability and reliability of these services.
Some of the reasons why people use Online Medical Diagnosis services are:
- Lower cost: Medical consultations can be expensive and alternative methods of getting advice from medical experts can be useful.
- Avoiding Embarrassment: People may find it easier to discuss their embarrassing physical medical conditions, or to discuss very personal issues online.
- Greater Convenience: The practical time and hassles of travelling to the doctor's office can be an issue for some.
- Filling in the Gaps: Some patients feel that they did not get the information they require with their doctors, and may have numerous questions that were not answered during their consultation. They see this as a good way of filling in the gaps.
Discussing Your Online Research with your Doctor
If you research your condition prior to seeing your doctor, you need to be prepared for some strange reactions. Many doctors don't like it and resent having to debate the issues with you.
They are used to having all the information and to only providing the bare minimum in the way of feed back. But it is worth persevering and it potentially offers a better outcome for you the patient. There is a lot more information available on various conditions on television and the Doctors' waiting rooms are full of brochures about ailments and advice, and so the internet should be seen as a way of expanding this general increase in knowledge. You should also ask your doctor to give you detailed advice on any medicine that is prescribed to you.
Its up to you really. The internet is a great way of expanding your knowledge and along as you are aware of the limitations and pitfalls of self-diagnosis, or at least doing some research on the symptoms, may provide a good way of getting preliminary information. But see your doctor to confirm the diagnosis.
© 2010 Dr. John Anderson
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