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Phoenix Forward

5 reasons why using the Web to self-diagnose is risky

The Internet shouldn’t replace health care

You’re up late with a stuffy nose and stomach cramps. The doctor’s office is closed, but you want to know what’s wrong and how to treat it. So you type your symptoms into a search engine or an online self-diagnosis site, searching for answers.

Sound familiar? According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 80 percent of otherwise healthy people have used the Internet to self-diagnose their illnesses at least once.

But checking your symptoms online instead of seeing a doctor is not a good idea, says Glenda Tali, MSN, a nurse practitioner and campus college chair for the College of Nursing at the University of Phoenix Hawaii Campus. She cites the following reasons you should go to a doctor instead:

1. You could misdiagnose yourself.

“The biggest danger by far is missing or dismissing something serious because of a lack of understanding,” Tali says.

This is a risk if you do a browser search for your symptoms or use a symptom checker. It’s also a risk of using social media sites such as Facebook® and Twitter® to crowdsource your health problems or reach out to potential experts. “There is no way to tell with 100 percent accuracy whether individuals online are really licensed health care professionals, so be wary,” Tali explains.

2. You could work yourself up over nothing.

Another hazard of digital self-diagnosis is the “cyberchondriac” phenomenon: people who look up symptoms online and convince themselves they have serious illnesses, when they are in fact healthy. “These cyberchondriacs lack objectivity when attempting to self-diagnose,” Tali says.

3. You could miss out on important doctor visits.

You should always see a qualified health professional for medical treatment, Tali stresses, rather than relying on the Web, for both regular check-ups and to evaluate medical issues. Once you’ve been diagnosed, however, she recommends checking websites from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic for helpful information about your condition.

4. You could miss out on finding a great community-based clinic.

Even if you lack health insurance, get prompt medical care rather than trying to diagnose and treat yourself with online resources, Tali counsels. Community-based clinics offer sliding-scale fee programs, up to and including free health care for those who qualify.

5. You could delay treatment for a serious problem.

Tali has treated several patients who incorrectly diagnosed themselves by looking up their symptoms online. They delayed seeking treatment and ended up in the hospital.

For instance, a middle-aged woman noticed that she had gained a little weight and had swollen ankles, so she went on a fad diet for several weeks. She later collapsed and was diagnosed with heart failure. “The ‘little weight’ was really fluid accumulation from a weakened heart muscle,” Tali explains.

“Nobody wants to believe they are really sick or have a terrible illness,” she says. “But denying your symptoms or delaying proper medical treatment could prove fatal. There’s no online substitute for proper medical care.”


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