A new research paper has revealed that people who diagnose themselves online are more likely to think they have a serious illness because they focus on their symptoms rather than the likelihood of a particular disease.
The study, conducted by Dengfeng Yan and Jaideep Sengupta of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that this is having significant implications for public health professionals as well as consumers.
“In today’s wired world, self-diagnosis via internet search is very common. Such symptom-matching exercises may lead consumers to overestimate the likelihood of getting a serious disease because they focus on their symptoms while ignoring the very low likelihood that their symptoms are related to any serious illness,” the authors explain.
Because most consumers fear the worst when it comes to their own health, the internet can often exacerbate these problems. But conversely, when other people are suffering from similar anxiety, we maintain calm objectivity.
For example, when someone else suffers from indigestion, we tend to accurately perceive it as indigestion, but experiencing the same symptom might lead us to panic and worry that we’re having a heart attack.
“One of the easiest ways to get rid of this bias is to see a real doctor instead of Dr. Google. A real doctor possesses much more knowledge and will take the prevalence of a disease into consideration because she is viewing the patient from a distance. This will prevent symptoms from exerting a disproportionate influence on the diagnosis,” the authors conclude.
Fisher Scientific reported similar results from British health practitioners in May. Dr Victor Chua, a partner at Candesic Healthcare, said: “Few conditions can be diagnosed by patients online.” He added that patients are increasingly coming to doctors with lists of illnesses rather than symptoms, believing they can self-diagnose online.