Experts Warn Against Self-Diagnosing Via Web

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  • Many Americans are turning to the web to self-diagnose their symptoms without consulting a doctor. Medical experts are now saying this can do more harm than good.

    A new study found that most people who use the Web to research their symptoms make their conditions appear worse than it may be.

    "This is particularly true when the disease is rare," said study co-author Dengfeng Yan, a doctoral student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "That is, given the same set of symptoms, people will overestimate their own likelihood of getting such rare (often serious) diseases than that of other people."

    Yan and co-researcher Jaideep Sengupta conducted a total of six experiments by distributing information to nearly 250 college students about the flu, HIV, osteoporosis, and breast cancer.

    In one experiment, researchers provided students information about the flu and asked them to imagine if they were experiencing symptoms like a cough, fever, running nose, and headache. They then asked the students to identify whether their symptoms matched a “regular” flu or were related to the feared epidemic of the time, H1N1 also known as the swine flu. Following this exercise, researchers continued by asking how the students would diagnose someone else with the same symptoms.

    Researchers found that students were more likely to diagnose themselves with the worst case, the H1N1 flu in comparison to when they diagnosed others. 

    Yan accounted the difference in the diagnosis perspective to psychological distance. He suggested that when diagnosing others, people tend to rely on broader statistics rather than the specific symptoms the individual may be experiencing.

    "Consumers often fear the worst when it comes to their own health, while maintaining a calm objectivity with regard to others," Yan said.

    Researchers believe that people who self-diagnosis are likely to mistaken their symptoms for worst case scenarios which can have dangerous effects. They said it can lead to unnecessary stress and medical expenses.

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