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Does self-diagnosis work and what are the dangers?

Self-diagnosing health conditions has become increasingly common, especially with the growth of the internet where so many resources are available at your fingertips. People decide they have an illness before ever setting foot in a doctor's office. However, can self-diagnosing ever be accurate? And why is it sometimes dangerous?

What is self-diagnosis?

Self-diagnosis entails identifying a medical condition for yourself.

A national survey by YouGov found that more than half of adults in the UK (51%) self-diagnose when feeling unwell or experiencing a medical symptom.

Dr Ravina Bhanot says the most common method of self-diagnosis is by using the notorious 'Dr Google' - a joke she says is well known in the medical community.

"Patients will Google their symptoms and whatever the most common link suggests is usually the diagnosis patients give themselves," she says.

There are also online screening tests people can take, filling out a questionnaire with their symptoms to see if they meet the criteria for a diagnosis. It's common for people to do this for mental illnesses, and search for questions like, "Do I have an eating disorder?" "Am I depressed?" and "OCD test".

On Patient.info, our top ranking articles relate to symptoms, not conditions. This suggests people are turning to the internet to aid with self-diagnosis more than ever, as they are searching for explanations to what their symptoms mean, rather than investigating a condition already diagnosed by a doctor. Some of the most searched symptoms on Patient include allergic reactions, coughing, hypertension and migraines.

The internet is also full of personal testimonies, especially on social media where people talk openly about their health struggles. If someone relates to experiences or symptoms a person with a certain condition has, they can then convince themselves that they have it also.

Why do people self-diagnose?

  • Lots of health information is now readily available online.
  • It makes people feel in control of their health.
  • It helps people seek medical support for specific conditions they are worried about.
  • Individuals 'know their body best' - self-diagnosing helps communicate their symptoms to doctors.
  • People might struggle to obtain a diagnosis by professionals.
  • Patients may have been misdiagnosed in the past but symptoms have continued.
  • Attending doctors appointments can be time-consuming.
  • People are often desperate for an explanation of what their symptoms mean.

What kind of conditions do people usually self-diagnose and are the results ever accurate?

Dr Bhanot says some self-diagnoses can sometimes be accurate. "Middle-aged women are very good at diagnosing menopause or perimenopause. This is usually the most accurate diagnosis," he says.

"People also often self-diagnose forms of anxiety, which is a common condition affecting 1 in 6 people per week in the UK. It is one of the most diagnosed conditions and patients are generally very aware of the symptoms, such as panic attacks, palpitations, shaking, insomnia and constant worry."

Feeling tired all the time is another health issue people are very aware of. It is so common, it has its own acronym - TATT. Dr Bhanot says women generally request blood tests to check for anaemia. However in elderly patients, it may be more important to rule out more worrying diagnoses like cancer

Furthermore, any change in a person's breasts usually causes them to worry about a breast cancer diagnosis, which is understandable. However, Dr Bhanot points out that only around 1 in 10 referrals to the breast clinic actually result in a breast cancer diagnosis.

Are there any positives of self-diagnosis?

Dr Bhanot finds self-diagnosis to be a double-edged sword, saying its benefits include the facts that patients:

  • May be very well informed on their potential problems, due to their thorough research.
  • Tend to be more accepting of a worrying diagnosis if they are right.
  • Have already formed an opinion on treatment options, which sets their expectations of the consultation. When patients already have an expectation, clinicians can structure the consultation around this.

What are the dangers of self-diagnosis?

  • Self-diagnosis can cause unnecessary worry in patients, as the most 'Googled' condition or the link that comes up first, isn't always the most accurate.
  • The unlimited access of information on the internet may give false reassurance to patients, delaying their presentation to a professional. Dr Bhanot gives the example that a change in urinary and bowel habits, and bloating for a long period of time, may be researched and thought to be symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, a doctor would be able to cipher whether this is IBS or ovarian cancer.
  • The internet is entirely unpoliced. This means anyone can post something online making any claim they want. Often, people share false information to promote products and encourage people to buy 'cures' and 'treatments' that are ineffective.
  • Similarly, most information online relating to health is not reviewed by a doctor (unlike the content on Patient.info, which is all peer reviewed by a GP or, in the case of our medicine leaflets, by a pharmacist). This means a medical professional has not confirmed its accuracy.
  • Patients can become fixated on a diagnosis that may not be true, making it difficult to open up their mind to different diagnoses. Dr Bhanot says this can jeopardise the patient-doctor relationship if patients request particular investigations and treatments which may not be of benefit. Best medical practice is to only order investigations that are deemed necessary to aid diagnosis and prescribe treatments whereby the benefits outweigh the risk.

Where should you go if you're concerned about a possible condition?

The first point of call should be your GP. Your GP has a wealth of knowledge on your medical history and your family's history. They can make a referral to any relevant specialists to further guide you on your condition.

There are plenty of online resources available to offer guidance on health. However, you must ensure they are written by professionals with up-to-date information. It's crucial you do not get too worried about sensationalist suggestions, and only rely on the information you can trust. Dr Bhanot recommends asking yourself the following questions when researching your health on the internet:

  • Who wrote it?
  • When was it written?
  • Can I trust the person or website?
  • Are there references?
  • Is it an opinion piece or is it based on research?

You can use Patient.info as a reliable resource for information on symptoms and conditions. All content is written by GPs, for GPs and their patients. It is clinically reviewed prior to publication to ensure every article is accurate and truthful, and all information is up to date and includes national guidance.

You can also access a symptom checker for a list of possible conditions. While you should always consult your doctor if you are concerned about your health, the symptom checker allows you to head into an appointment with some knowledge and understanding of what might be happening with your body.

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