Dr Google and the age of self-diagnosis


It came as no surprise to us when we read a recent report stating that 2.6 million 18-29 year olds go online first for health advice. Around 28,000 people have started the form to order one of our kits (sadly, 66% of those lived outside of our delivery area) generating over 10,000 orders. In addition, there have been over 20,000 views of our information and support pages!

An Ofcom study from August last year states that two thirds of the UK now have a smartphone. If you take public transport for your morning commute you’ll undoubtedly have seen rows of people with hung heads, eyes locked on their phones. It makes sense that we would seek health advice digitally, and it could also help health professionals by ensuring that they see the right people at the right time, informed by the right information to talk openly about their condition.

While digital health support has huge potential to provide equity of access to healthcare, there’s also potential for mis-self-diagnosis, causing unnecessary worry, and lack of a clear pathway for support if people don’t find a good quality online information source. Some of our supporters told us about various conditions they’d misdiagnosed themselves having consulted Dr.Google:

Thought I had Parkinson’s Disease because of an involuntary hand tremor. I’ve also made the mistake of googling “persistent cough” and talked myself into having cancer
I lost hearing in my ear and there was red wax coming out of it. After diagnosing myself with a burst ear drum through Dr Google I went to an actual doctor, it turned out it was just blocked
I’ve self-diagnosed myself with cancer, HIV, tuberculosis and MS through Dr.Google. I did panic with regards to HIV and went to the doctor to get an STI test

Fortunately, as the focus on digital health interventions increases, the quality of information and support will inevitably improve. Many services now offer webchat and there are also new online appointment booking systems and plans to give you access to your health records online. The future of healthcare also looks certain to include AI. Super-brainy types are developing AI health assistants that can respond to your symptoms and filter you through to a professional that can help. These assistants will improve over time as they answer more of your queries through machine learning techniques.

Getting the best out of Dr Google

So you’re inevitably going to Google your symptoms, here’s a few tips to avoid the sort of worries our supporters had

1. Never read the forums.                                                                                                               

Sure, it’s great to hear about other people’s experiences, and forums are a great place to exchange recipes, gaming easter egg secrets or source some household freebies but your body is not the same as everyone else’s (yay!) and how one person’s body responds to something does not mean the same thing is happening to you. Talk to a medical professional, or find a website run by health professionals... which leads us nicely on to...

2. Look for trusted websites                                                                                                          

Of course noone wants to have to do a full background check on a website before they use it. One thing Dr Google has going for it is how darn good it is at identifying the more trusted sites. If you want to avoid the odd useless search return though, why not go straight to NHS Choices (or Google it, if you must)? It is the most comprehensive, jargon free health source the UK offers, has links to other trusted, specialist services and you can even use their directory to find a qualified professional too.

3. Check out your GP’s website                                                                                                      

We’re not talking about booking an appointment. Many GPs not only have details of their own services on their sites, but will signpost to local free services that can also help. For example, the lovely people at Herne Hill Group Practice feature SH:24 on their site enabling people to get a test through us.

And don’t forget, we have lots of sexual health and contraception information on our site. Do take a look!