Are you an inpatient patient? The rise of self-diagnosis using Dr Google

We are a nation of impatient patients, according to new research which reveals that one in four people in the UK admit to self-diagnosing illnesses, rather than making the time to visit a doctor.

Using technology to manage your health?

In fact the trend for self-diagnosis is up 19% over the last 12 months. It feels a bit like the rise in popularity of local neighbourhood Facebook groups, gving us instant acess to news as it happens – is our area suddenly rife with crime? Or is it simply because victims are reporting offences online before even going to the police? You could say that ignorance was bliss before we had the internet. It appears as if we are slowly replacing help from professional bodies with online reassurance, which often has the opposite effect – we worry more!

The same can be said for the way we seek advice or reassurance when it comes to our health – we can now get this with just a few clicks, through online discussion boards, video consultations, interactive health quizzes or medical fact sheets. There’s been an average of an extra 848,000 searches each month over the past year, whereas in the past we may not have heard or understood half of these conditions without having seen a doctor first.

The research, published in the UK Digital Health Report (comprising research by the NHS-commissioned online service, Push Doctor, into Google data and a consumer survey of 1,013 UK adults), reveals that 21.8% of people choose to diagnose their symptoms on the internet because they are unable to get a doctor’s appointment (11%) or because their GP wasn’t available quickly enough (10.8%).

Give up a lie-in for a doctor’s appointment? No thanks!

The report says that we want to find out what is wrong with us right there and then, which is slightly ironic when the same research says that a large number of us can’t be bothered to change our plans or make the time to go to the doctor (47% of people wouldn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of a lie-in). This suggests that we are happy to waste hours of our life browsing the internet for medical information on our phones or tablets, yet at the same time we appear to have lower concentration spans and are lazy when it comes to interacting with people in real life and seeking face-to-face advice – and more importantly, the expertise of a qualified practitioner.

I think there is far more to it than being inpatient. At first I questioned whether it is really that hard to get an appointment. Then I realised that I am lucky that I work from home and can pop out to make an appointment quite easily on the day I need it. Yet people who work full-time (or struggle to leave the house due to other commitments or a lack of transport) aren’t necessarily going to have that convenience. At the same time, there may be feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment or simply a matter of pride that means some people avoid asking permission to take time off to visit their GP.

I can understand why people would rather use the internet first and foremost to get advice when they start to feel unwell, rather than go to their partner or a medical professional. Often we don’t like to admit we feel unwell and want to try and figure it out ourselves first before we burden our concerns on close friends and family.

This is why the statistics interest me from a personal and professional point of view. Firstly, I know how important it is to ensure that any health-related information is backed up by credible sources (where the information you find online is well written, up-to-date and factually correct); and secondly, (and this has nothing to do with the fact that Surrey came up third in the table – er, I live in Surrey), but I am probably guilty of using Dr Google a bit too much at times myself. With such ease of access to the internet, it is even more tempting to go onto the internet and start searching for symptoms that you appear to have, that relate to something more serious, and wham bam you’ve diagnosed yourself with a brain tumour.

My ‘skin cancer’ scare…

I did something similar just a couple of weeks ago – I had a weird mark on my foot that suddenly appeared. It wasn’t a blister, it didn’t hurt, but it had been there for around four weeks and wasn’t getting any better. I kept thinking about things I had read (and probably written about) when it comes to keeping an eye on any moles that appear, change shape or have certain textures to it. In the space of an hour of Googling (mainly using Google images) I decided I had skin cancer – not the most dangerous form, but a less serious form know as Basal Cell Carcinoma. Crazy woman? Well obviously not so crazy as we all self-diagnose at times, don’t we?

Unlike the focus of this research, I did go to the doctors to get it checked and I never purely rely on online information (mainly because I understand that it may not be a doctor who is writing the content and I am pretty well educated on the subject of health to know better!). Within five minutes he told me it was a bekjpsdhposgghisgheisg (i.e. I have no idea, it was a long word and I can’t remember now), but something to do with capillaries, nothing to worry about, and it will go away over time.

The danger of Dr Google

The media loves a story about people who have self-diagnosed, with doctors saying there’s nothing wrong and Google being right. Although this doesn’t happen very often, this is the sort of thing that makes it high up in the news headlines and as a result gives us less reason to trust our doctor’s opinion.

Being self-aware about your health isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is doing some research first to educate yourself on health matters. Being overly anxious about your health, on the other hand, and ‘body scanning’ at every opportunity or worrying about every symptom you may or may not have is where things can get a bit out of control. You can start to feel ill, because you think you are ill (psychosomatic), and that can end up as a vicious circle.

Top 10 most common health searches

Below you can see the UK league table that goes with the research, which revealed that people in Liverpool are the top ‘Googlers’ of health concerns and the city most likely to be researching about back pain and depression. Interesting stats – and perhaps worthy of another blog, but for now I shall leave you with the tables and you can draw your own conclusions about why people in Essex are so worried about Chlamydia… ?!

Top places searching for each condition

Most commonly searched health conditions

League Table of UK Health Searches for Self-Diagnosis

League table of UK health searches for self-diagnosis

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