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The slippery slope of self-diagnosis

Published On: August 5, 2016 04:30 AM NPT By: Cilla Khatry

Skipping the doctor’s office and turning to the Internet with your health concerns might be easy and fast but it is also quite a dangerous practice.

There is a reason why 37-year-old Manasi Shrestha never goes on the Internet to google health symptoms anymore. Three years ago she did just that when she had a persistent sore throat problem and had convinced herself she had cancer. She will never forget the unnecessary stress she put herself through for something a round of antibiotics could easily cure after she visited the doctor’s office.

“Everybody googles their symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments. The Internet has made it all too easy and while people do seem to be a little more conscious about their health, often times they are also scared out of their wits,” says Dr Mahesh Raj Ghimire, adding that he has seen patients who, because of web searches, come in thinking there is something gravely wrong with their bodies. A simple ulcer is cancer, and headache is a brain tumor. People have a tendency to always imagine the worst.

This could also be because on the Internet the most serious thing is given prominence. Most websites use mathematical model that is based on page views to rank pages in search results. Articles about cancer might have had more views than allergies or infection and that is the reason why they move up in search results. This doesn’t mean that cancer is more prevalent. It just means that more people are reading about cancer than they are about other health issues.

Yes, the Internet is faster, and simpler. You don’t have to take an appointment and wait in line for hours like you would have to at the hospital. However, the dangers of using google to self diagnose are aplenty. With literally millions of medical websites, blogs, and other pages, the Internet can spew out an overwhelming amount of information or actually misinformation, in many cases.

“When you feel uneasy or have some ache somewhere in your body, googling the symptoms is the first option and going to the doctor isn’t an immediate priority. You think you will be able to get rid of whatever is bothering you but often times you end up mentally stressing yourself out even more,” says Shrestha who has now sworn to let her health issues be handled by those who have been trained to do so.  

There is even a name for this tech-enabled obsessing over real symptoms or imagined signs and scenarios: Cyberchondria. This is such a common occurrence that now there are even online ‘symptom checkers’ hosted by medical schools for individuals to match their symptoms against diseases to drive them towards a more accurate diagnosis.

“Doing some homework about your health issues might make it easy for your to understand your medical condition better while jump starting the healing process but that will only be beneficial if you visit a doctor armed with all the information you have,” says Dr Ghimire. Sometimes people operate with a flawed assumption about what they have and take measures that simply aren’t required or are completely wrong for them.

26-year-old Richa Amatya can vouch for that. Earlier this year, she fell violently ill. When the fever didn’t subside even after a few doses of paracetamol, she took antibiotics all on her own. When the fever showed no signs of abating, her roommate at the hostel she has been living in for the last three years in Kathmandu dragged her to the hospital. Turned out she had Urinary Tract Infection and needed stronger antibiotics.

“The doctor listened to my symptoms and figured out what I was suffering from. He couldn’t order blood tests to confirm it because he said as I was already on antibiotics nothing would show on the blood culture report but nevertheless we did run some other tests,” says Amatya who thinks of the two weeks she suffered from UTI as the most horrific time in her life. “I had never felt pain like that and I don’t want to go down that lane again,” she adds.

This is where the Internet falls short and the skill of a doctor is required. The ability to use clinical judgment to piece together all the presented information about a patient to arrive at a clinical diagnosis is perhaps the most important aspect of determining your health condition. Listening to a patient and using judgment and experience to rightly diagnose their condition are things a computer simply cannot replicate.

By googling symptoms, people also often end up believing that they do not have any medical condition or that their medical condition is a minor thing and will go away by itself without any medical intervention or treatment. But sometimes, the fact might also be that they do have a medical issue that needs expert

Abhash Thapa, 34, has had a similar experience. After developing rashes in various parts of his body, with the help of web searches he quickly determined he had sun allergy. Despite using a good sunblock and staying away from harsh sunlight as much as possible, his condition didn’t improve. It was only when the itching became unbearable that he thought of seeking actual medical help. Six months after its onset he found out the real reason behind his condition: an allergic reaction to a certain food ingredient.

However, despite all the downsides, various doctors in the capital this scribe spoke to don’t think the practice of googling your symptoms will end anytime soon. Many believe the convenience of doing a quick search about your symptoms on the Internet and getting the required medicines or antibiotics from the local pharmacy coupled with the anxiety one feels when there is even a slight bodily discomfort is what makes it so popular.

“The information from google searches or symptom checkers can be an excellent starting point but a medical personal should confirm or disprove it with a series of tests,” says Dr Ghimire. Shrestha speaks from experience when she says that playing doctor might do you more harm than good, both physically and mentally as well. On the government’s part, perhaps stronger laws to control the selling of medicines without a prescription might help curb this practice to a certain extent, but a huge chunk of the responsibility falls on every individual.


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