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.
Yan and Sengupta aren’t the only ones who find self-diagnosis via the Web risky. Dr. Peter Galier, an internal medicine specialist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center believes it’s a part of human nature for people to overestimate the health issues for themselves and family members.
Galier explained that many people who rely on the Web rather than a doctor about their symptoms don’t realize the risk of erroneous information.
"When people are able to access a lot of information that isn't filtered, and they don't have expertise in the field, they don't know how to prioritize the information," Galier said.
Galier provided an example of a healthy young man who may experience chest pain after drinking a cold soda. He believes that the man could easily turn to the Internet and identify his symptom as a sign of a heart attack. However, he does not recognize the essentials of missing information such as his age and medical history.
"Chest pain in a 55-year-old guy is looked at much differently than in a 25-year-old guy," he said.
Study researchers recommended that people should primarily see a doctor for their symptoms.
''The advantage of seeing a real doctor isn't just because he or she is an expert," he said. "It's also that they aren't you."
They believe that an objective diagnosis from a doctor eliminates the emotional stress that often comes with self-diagnosis. Yan suggested disclosing the situation to colleagues to ease the panic and stress surrounding their symptoms.