THE BLOG

Digital Diagnosis

13/09/2016 16:17

Have you ever found yourself clogged up with a cold, curled up on the sofa, feeling sorry for yourself and drinking copious amounts of Lemsip and feeling too weak to visit the doctors, you decide to Google your symptoms, only to end up self-diagnosing yourself with a couple of months to live? No, oh, maybe only me.

With long waiting lists and stretched services, all NHS patients will soon be offered diagnosis by smart phone in a bid to lift pressures on ailing inundated services.

The National Health Service has been renowned for long waiting times and fraught stretched services: all parts of the country are drawing up plans to close or merge some services due to demanding pressures. A spike in emergency callouts and casualty attendances has resulted in Accident & Emergency waiting targets repeatedly missed, while waiting times for GPs have grown longer and thresholds for receiving specialist help nearly impossible. In March 2016, a total of 212,136 patients waited more than the maximum four hours to be admitted, transferred or discharged from hospital A&E units, the highest number ever (NHS statistics). Hospitals only treated 83% of A&E patients within four hours, way below the 95% standard they are meant to achieve. And access to specialist support, such as eating disorder units can take weeks or even months to access.
Will the introduction of the smartphone only serve to further reduce the human interaction and sympathy of health practitioners? I go to the doctors, not only for a diagnosis and prescription but for reassurance, support and guidance. Surely, an anonymous smartphone doctor cannot replace personal consultation?

Unveiling a series of pledges to allow the public to access healthcare online, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt said that the health service must "embrace the age of the smartphone". Wit a cash injection of £4.2bn, the new emergency service will offer patients to tap in their symptoms on their smartphone, and receive instant advice, or a call back from clinical advisers. Is this progress or does it seem strangely dystopian? Our NHS is a public service, what is stopping the education system following suit, and suddenly announcing that lessons will be taught over e-learning modules, to reduce the pressure on teachers?

Young people experiencing mental health problems are increasingly turning to the internet and social media for support, instead of their parents or experts. Reducing the interaction and input of doctors and GP's will only heighten this. According to a 2012 report by YoungMinds and Cello, Talking Self-Harm exposed a clear lack of of defined information sources, resulting in 77% of young people feeling that they don't know who to turn to with questions about self-harm. Furthermore, 73% of young people relied on TV, the internet and social networks to access information and support, compared to just 11% who sought information from healthcare professionals. "I got all my support via the internet from other young people like me when I was self-harming. They didn't judge me and they understood it was a coping mechanism..." (Young person). Interestingly though, 50% of the young people questioned felt they should be talking to their parents about it, but only 10% felt comfortable doing so. These statistics demonstrate that although young people understand the value of reaching out and talking to others about their mental health problems, in reality they find it much easier to confide in the anonymity of the internet. Although the internet provides the benefits of an online peer support and a wealth and breadth of information, young people are recorded as more likely to receive exposure to negative content on the internet than in any other place, 82% of young people (part of Safer Internet Day 2016 survey) had seen or heard something hateful on the internet. If young people cannot access information and support when they need it, they may turn to darker sources.

Blogging sites such as Tumblr make it easy for young people to share and find personal experiences, hints and recommendation, from eating disorders to suicide, there is little regulations on what can be published online. Many young people are turning to blogging sites to discuss their battles with mental health issues. As a result, these sites have become an unofficial resource of mental health information, as vulnerable young people seek information and can worryingly end up reading through various personal accounts, which are misguided, uninformed and destructive. Across the internet, there are many blogs and images on the internet that glorify problems such as self-harm and eating disorders, and these pose a real threat to young people, particularly if they are already struggling with a mental health problem.

It is vital that health services and GPs are on hand to offer real and meaningful support. Nothing substitutes the reassuring words and the message that "You are not alone".

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