A formal diagnosis is often the first step on the road to healing from a physical or a mental illness. A diagnosis provides a faint feeling of illness with a name, and the right diagnosis can provide someone with a clear roadmap to wellness. Often, people visit their doctors in order to get this kind of information. They submit to tests, answer questions and otherwise provide the raw data a clinician can use in order to really get to the root of the discomfort.
But sometimes people skip the doctor’s office, and they hop online to diagnose their own diseases. While this method might seem expedient, and it’s certainly common, it can be remarkably dangerous.
Searching for Health Online
In a report published in 2013, researchers found that the average American consumer spends an average of an hour each week looking for health information online. They might browse casually, reading up on disease prevention or general health management, but many of these consumers are performing targeted searches in which they’re outlining the symptoms they have, and hoping to find out what they can call their particular ailment.
Unfortunately, search engines often provide information about the most serious types of ailments at the beginning of the search results. For example, in a study conducted by researchers at 008-178.pdf” target=”_blank”>Microsoft, the probability that the word “brain tumor” would come up in response to a web search for the symptom “headache” stood at 0.26, which is the same probability the diagnosis “caffeine withdrawal” received.
In all likelihood, people searching for the word “headache” have something really simple, such as:
- Common colds
- Sinus infections
- Eye strain
But researchers found that people looking online are likely to walk away from that search thinking that they have a brain tumor. The most serious thing is given prominence, even though it may be a much less likely reality than less serious conditions.
It’s hard to know why this is the case, but it’s possible that the nature of web searches makes critical diagnoses seem much more prevalent when the user is searching for information online. Most websites use mathematical model that’s based on page views when determining what order in which to rank pages in search responses, and articles about cancer might get more hits or page views than articles written about eye strain or fatigue. The pieces just seem more interesting, and there are more stats and stories to share in response to a cancer topic. Since more people read these cancer articles, they seem more popular and they move up in search results. This doesn’t mean that cancer is more prevalent; it just means that more people want to read about cancer. But a search results page filled with the word “cancer” can fill a person with fear and make it seem likely that the little headache is a harbinger of something terrible.
Trusting the Results of Online Searches
People who do a significant amount of work with search engines likely know that the results have little to nothing to do with disease prevalence. However, many people who run these searches don’t really understand the logarithms that drive most search engines, and they may believe that the results on the first page are indicative of the diseases that they are most likely to have.Studies seem to suggest that few people who use online forums to diagnose their conditions take their results with a grain of salt. For example, a study from Wolters Kluwer Health found that 63 percent of people who sought out information online reported that they have never misdiagnosed
themselves due to a search. They feel as though they’ve gotten the right information at the right time and that they can trust everything they found.Even more distressingly, a study from the Pew Research Center found that only about half of people who look for information online talk to their doctors about what they have found. In most cases, people believe what the search engines have told them, and they might act on that information without consulting an outside source at all. Even if that information is false or patently untrue, these people believe it and they don’t ask for confirmation from their doctors. That’s a sad, and dangerous, fact.
How It’s Harmful
People who believe that they’re diagnosed with a specific medical or mental health condition may attempt to cure that problem by changing their diet, taking over-the-counter medications or otherwise attacking the issue at its source. Unfortunately, if people are working from a flawed assumption about what they have, they might be taking steps they simply don’t need to take.
Meanwhile, if people are addressing one problem while ignoring the real source of the issue, they may find that their original complaint grows much more serious. For example, people who assume they have a brain tumor might begin to dabble in drug abuse in order to make the pain fade, and they may believe that they’re facing a terminal illness and therefore don’t have long to live, so there’s no reason to be sober. If their pain comes about due to allergies, however, and they don’t get that addressed, those allergic symptoms could grow much more severe and might even transition into asthma. At some point, the person could have an addiction and asthma, and the headache might still be a problem. The wrong diagnosis, as this example makes clear, could lead to long-lasting problems.
Additionally, people who believe that they have severe illnesses with no cure often struggle with intense feelings of fear and sadness. For example, a study in the European Journal of Cancer found that men who are given a diagnosis of prostate cancer after a routine screening tend to struggle with a “significant negative mental impact,” even though clinicians suggest that prostate cancer can be effectively managed and doesn’t necessarily lead to death. In this case, doctors could work with their patients in the aftermath of a PSA screening and explain what the numbers do and do not mean. However, a man who searches alone and becomes convinced that he has prostate cancer may not have access to those soothing words of an expert. His mental health could go into a downward spiral as a result.
Serious diagnoses often lead to poor mental health scores when people feel as though nothing can be done to combat the problem. For example, researchers writing in the British Journal of Health Psychology suggest that women with breast cancer improve in mental health functioning two to six months after diagnosis if they come to terms with the illness and begin to feel as though they’ll beat it. Confidence is just part of better mental health, these researchers say, and most people obtain that feeling of efficacy after working with their doctors. They understand what must be done, and they begin to make improvements. Those who diagnose themselves alone might not attain this feeling of improvement and efficacy, and they may struggle with severely impaired mental health as a result.
Better Choices for Diagnoses
The Internet can be a powerful tool for people who want to learn more about staying healthy, but it’s best to stick to specific websites when searching for tidbits and tips. General searches can be fraught with dangers, and often, the results do more harm than good.
- Those ending with the suffix “.gov,” as they’re sponsored by the federal government
- Sites ending with “.edu,” as they’re run by medical schools or universities
- Sites that end with “.org,” as they’re maintained by not-for-profit organizations
- Scientific journals or medical journals
Seeking out these sites and bookmarking them could be an excellent idea for consumers who plan to research medical information.
When the search is through, however, a doctor should be a part of the conversation. The data that came up during the search can be an excellent starting point, as patients can discuss the symptoms that led them to the search and the reasons that the online diagnosis seems accurate.
But a doctor can either confirm that diagnosis or disprove it with a series of tests. Sometimes the online diagnosis is the correct one, and the medical team can come up with a plan that could ameliorate symptoms or help clients to deal with the impact that a chronic condition can deliver. In other cases, that online diagnosis is completely false, and clients may walk out of their appointments with a sense of profound relief that may have eluded them if they didn’t discuss their searches openly with the doctor.
It can be difficult to discuss conditions with a clinician, and in some parts of the country, wait times for appointments can be long. It’s understandable that people would choose to take matters into their own hands when they feel as though they have no other choice in terms of feeling better. But it’s best to be a smart health care consumer and use all tools available, and that means consulting a clinician.
If you’re struggling with mental health concerns, or you’re looking for information so you can help someone you love, we’re happy you landed on this site, and we want to help you. But we hope you won’t use the information on this site in order to do any kind of diagnostic work. We want to raise awareness, but we don’t want to take the place of a qualified professional. We can help you to find a mental health professional that could help, however, and we’d like to do just that. Please contact us, and our admissions coordinators can put you in touch with a Foundations Recovery Network provider that can help you to obtain the right diagnosis and the right treatment plan. Just call and we’ll tell you more.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton