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Using Social Media to Self Diagnose is that What the Doctor Prescribed?

There’s no question that social media is a powerful tool. It has helped many fields in providing valuable information and timely content to the masses. Even in industries that are highly regulated, like healthcare, social media has been a driving force in providing resources and improved access of information for patients and clinicians. While the strengths of social media are clear, a recent trend has been discovered in which patients are using social platforms and simple Google searches to ‘self diagnose’ a symptom of dependency on the internet as the default resource for information.

Over the years, as more websites and online information portals become increasingly available, patients are turning to these sources for answers. These sites were never intended to be the sole source of information to enable anyone to self-diagnose. In fact, many sites clearly state that the information shown is for educational purposes. These sites are intended to supplement, not replace, professional advice and visits to medial practitioners.

Often simply entering basic search terms of symptoms will result in endless pages of answers, some irrelevant and many instil unnecessary fear into the average reader. Medical information sites can be accessed before or after a visit to a medical professional. They should not replace the visit.

The Positive Effect of Social Media on Health

Social media and digital information provides users with vast resources and has become an invaluable tool to increase awareness and advocacy for a variety of health issues. Social media has already enabled an increased awareness of the global epidemic of obesity, plaguing today’s youth. The New York Times covered the phenomenon and the importance of digital information to shed light on the issue. The internet provides information and knowledge allowing patients to choose the ideal medical guidance, research treatment options and understand the many aspects to their illness.  As the internet continues to change the way users access information, the model between practitioner and patient will shift. The relationship will become more of a collaborative partnership, thereby improving the overall healthcare landscape.

The Danger of Social Media on Health

With health care reforms reducing the actual face-time with doctors, however, patients are turning to the web for answers. How much time are patients spending on the internet searching for medical advice? Enough that there is a term called Cyberchondria, basically a term describing a fear that readers get when attempting to self-diagnose.

Most of the time, when patients conduct a search, they are guided to WebMD, which is an important resource but is in many ways an endless black hole, often creating unnecessary fear.

Ironically, Google is aware of trend to self-diagnose. So much so that they have been working with doctors to eliminate “scary conditions” from appearing during basic searches, according to Veronica Pinchin, a product manager for Google.

As Google continues to improve its symptom search engine, Google is looking to deliver the most relevant results to readers while not replacing the medical profession.

Most physicians have met patients who have self-diagnosed their ailments or worse their condition has been exacerbated by trying to follow advice they found via social media or a simple search. For example, a search on Youtube for ‘treatment to back pain’ A search on YouTube using the simple key words “treatment for back pain” provides over over 400,000 videos offering countless exercises, treatments, testimonies, advice and potential solutions. While most of the information may be accurate, some people use this information without understanding the full spectrum of their needs or situation. Without proper medical attention, the condition may be missed or worse. The potential risk of using social media as the only source of information is clear.

As with any health or medical concern, self-diagnoses or online research is meant to be a preliminary or complementary resource. And while the medical information on these sites may indeed be accurate, every medical condition should be confirmed by a medical professional.  Social media can be a solid way to crowdsource reliable medial guidance.

Social media can also provide timely and location based information can be critical to many remote users who are unable to access medial advice easily.

Just how common is social media for self-diagnosing? Here’s an infographic that offers statistics and solutions for reducing any fear of symptoms found on the internet.

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Cyberchondria - Don't Ask Dr. Google - See a Doctor! - - Infographic