Why Dr Google Can Be Your Worst Enemy

You'll think you have a cancer you don't have.
SIphotography via Getty Images

Half of online searches for symptoms end up with people diagnosing themselves with cancer, a recent study revealed – or with a host of other diseases that they are unlikely to have.

"The challenge is that a symptom that presents for one disease may also present for another. The presence of a headache, for example, could be attributed to a vast number of reasons. The danger, then, with the internet, is that you can incorrectly diagnose yourself," explained local general practitioner Dr Lutha Adams of LCS Clinic.

He says it's not unusual for patients to come in for consultations having predetermined, via the internet, what disease they have.

"The best thing to do is to visit a healthcare practitioner. They have been trained and can provide a far more accurate diagnosis than you could ever hope to achieve on your own," he recommends.

Psychosomatic disorders are the other danger with Dr Google. This term mainly refers to "a physical disease that is thought to be caused, or made worse, by mental factors." The term is also used when mental factors cause physical symptoms, but where there is no physical disease.

Further, an incorrect diagnosis can also lead to an incorrect prescription, which can make you more ill. You will be taking over-the-counter medication for an illness you don't have.

"There is an evidence-based reason why that medication is specifically prescribed for someone," cautioned Dr Nicola Lister, medical director and chief scientific officer at Novartis. A patient's age, weight, sex, and medical history are some of things doctors take into consideration when deciding which medication and how much of a dose to prescribe.

There is an evidence-based reason why that medication is specifically prescribed for someone.

In the case that you are taking other medications, for example, "one could cancel the effect of another or have severe side-effects, because medications interact with one another in the body", she explained.

And what all this does is delay diagnosis and treatment for the right ailment, pointed out the study's Dr Steve Illey. "We know that diagnosis and treatment are often delayed as people struggle to find time to book a GP appointment or worry about wasting the doctor's time."

Dr Google, however, is not strictly medicine's problem.

Registered dietician Ashley Gibbon has also encountered patients who have incorrectly diagnosed themselves as obese, for example, when they are just a different body shape and size.

This can send them down an unhealthy food spiral – in which they will do anything to relieve the perceived obesity.

"Only a healthcare professional can help diagnose obesity and then recommend healthy and medically approved ways of dealing with it. The most common way to determine if a person is overweight or obese is to calculate their body mass index (BMI)," she said.

Similarly, with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, because the symptoms are widely known, some people have a tendency to google and self-diagnose themselves incorrectly.

"Mental illnesses are serious health conditions that must never be taken lightly. They is also a wide range of mental health conditions. If you suspect you have one, you must be attended to by qualified healthcare professionals who can determine the illness and help with a diagnosis," said Cassey Chambers, the operations director at the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (Sadag).

And just in case you were curious, these were the top 10 health questions internet users asked Dr Google in 2017:

  1. What causes hiccups?
  2. How to stop snoring?
  3. What causes kidney stones?
  4. Why am I so tired?
  5. How long does the flu last?
  6. What is normal blood pressure?
  7. How to lower cholesterol?
  8. What causes high blood pressure?
  9. What is ADHD?
  10. What is lupus?

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