Consulting Google or Reddit for Health Issues Likely Doing More Harm
Sat, April 10, 2021

Consulting Google or Reddit for Health Issues Likely Doing More Harm

43% used the internet to search for their symptoms and ended up believing their illness more serious than it really is. / Photo by: dolgachov via 123rf


Looking up symptoms of diseases on Google for self-diagnosis will likely do more damage than help, according to two separate studies.

One of them, commissioned by LetsGetChecked, a website that provides efficient, discreet, and thorough online health and wellness test kits, and conducted by OnePoll, a survey-led marketing research company specializing in online and mobile polling, surveyed Americans and found that two in five people turn to Google to look up their symptoms and believe that their illness is much more serious than it actually is.

The other research not only investigated Google searches but also looked into Reddit and other social media platforms that more people are using to seek medical advice and ask for help in easing their illnesses, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Misdiagnoses Due to Online Searches

The LetsGetChecked-commissioned survey polled 2,000 Americans and found that 43 percent used the internet to search for their symptoms and ended up believing their illness more serious than it really is while 65 percent said they used the internet to self-diagnose.

Results of the survey showed that consulting the internet to determine one's illness might do more harm than good, reported the Daily Mail, a British daily newspaper that provides the latest breaking news, sport news, viral videos, and top stories.

It added that instead of easing their concerns, 74 percent of the respondents who self-diagnosed with search results said their symptoms heightened their worry about their health. This could be due to the unreliable answers of online searches (less than 40 percent of the time).

"'This survey shows us that a significant number of people are living with ongoing, negative day-to-day symptoms that they either don't understand or misdiagnose," said Robert Mordkin, medical director of LetsGetChecked.

While many turn to the internet to understand their symptoms, the results show it isn't everyone's first choice for a diagnosis. The start of uneasiness prompted 51 percent of the respondents to first consult a healthcare professional, according to the study.

It also found that 26 percent don't have a personal doctor while 6 out of 10 said they avoid going to a physician. The Daily Mail said the avoidance is due to a number of reasons: medical care (47 percent), skeptical of doctors (37 percent), and lack of time (37 percent).

A variety of factors may encourage respondents to see a professional, including having results explained in a way they can easily understand (47 percent), more affordable care (46 percent), if they have better schedules (43 percent), being able to choose which part of their health they can test (41 percent), and taking tests at home (38 percent).

"While educating yourself can be a good thing, it is important to have objective testing. One way to do this is with home health testing, which enables better convenience, flexibility, and peace of mind," Mordkin noted.

Looking into Google and Reddit

Google isn't the only platform people use to look up their symptoms. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, people also use Reddit and other forms of social media to ask for and give medical advice.

The so-called "crowd-diagnosis," in which people turn to social media to seek out medical diagnoses, has significantly increased in the past year and seems to have become the alternative to visiting doctors for proper care.

The study looked into a subsection of discussion website Reddit called r/STD dedicated to sexually transmitted diseases and has more than 10,000 members, US-based business news site CNBC reported.

Eighty-seven percent of all posts that requested a crowd-diagnosis receive a response from other users, with the first response coming in about three hours after the query was posted while 79 percent were answered within the day.

It added that the number of posts in the subsection nearly doubled in the past year since November 2018 and 58 percent of all posts on r/STD from November 2010 through February 2019 were explicitly requesting help with a crowd-diagnosis. Out of that percentage, 31 percent included a photo of symptoms for reference.

"Social media was not built to deliver health care," Alicia Nobles, a co-author of the study from the Department of Medicine at the University of California-San Diego, told CNBC via email.

"Currently, we don't know if STDs or other health issues can be accurately diagnosed online, especially since people's requests vary in the information they provide."


People use Reddit and other forms of social media to ask for and give medical advice. / Photo by: Piotr Trojanowski via 123rf


Advocating Face-to-Face Consultations

Anyone who has access to the internet has nearly all of the world's knowledge at the tip of their fingertips. But this knowledge should always be digested with caution, considering not everything on the World Wide Web is accurate especially when it comes to health issues.

Aside from costing next to nothing, turning to the internet to look up symptoms could be driven by shame or lack of access to get professional (and possibly life-saving) help.

This is particularly true in people who fear they have STDs, as the stigma around these diseases has yet to be lifted. Posting online allows people to remain mostly anonymous, thus helps them overcome the embarrassment that they might feel if they were to consult a doctor.

While this is understandable, having face-to-face consultations should still be practiced. Based on the LetsGetChecked and OnePoll survey making healthcare more affordable and devising tests that can be done at home, more people would be encouraged to consult a doctor than turn to the internet when it comes to understanding their symptoms.