The dangers of Doctor Google: How a quarter of British women misdiagnose illness by looking up symptoms on the internet
21:00 GMT, 11 August 2012
We’ve all done it: faced with vaguely worrying medical symptoms, an internet search is often simpler, and quicker, than waiting for a doctor’s appointment.
Tap in ‘headache’, ‘backache’, and ‘tired all the time’, and Dr Google has diagnosed you with some rare type of cancer.
Most people take this with a hefty pinch of salt. But new research has found that a quarter of British women have misdiagnosed themselves on the internet – then bought the wrong medicine to try to cure their illness. Online research is fine – but here’s why, often, only a real doctor will do…
Tap in 'headache', 'backache', and 'tired all the time', and Dr Google has diagnosed you with some rare type of cancer (file photo)
Searching for symptoms online and self-medicating led to one in ten women enduring unpleasant side effects as a result of misdiagnosis.
Half of the women surveyed diagnosed themselves online, then bought a treatment on the high street without checking with a pharmacist if it was the correct product.
A fifth had at some time wrongly suspected they had a serious disease.
The most common false alarm came over breast cancer, while many women had wrongly diagnosed themselves as having thrush, high blood pressure or asthma.
As a GP and pioneer of online medicine (I recently set up a private online consulting service), you might think I’d be all for online diagnosis. But I think people need to see their doctors more often.
The internet should not be a substitute for seeing a real doctor (file photo)
The worry about self-diagnosing is not so much those who panic and think they have cancer.
Rather, it’s those who look up a symptom, decide it’s something reasonably innocuous – such as thrush, which is mentioned in the survey – buy a tube of Canestan and get on with life.
Under-diagnosing is much more dangerous and it’s more of a worry than thinking there’s something seriously wrong.
I have a patient who did just that. She had some stomach pains and lost weight. Thrilled with her new slimness, she decided her stomach pains were the result of her diet, which was clearly working.
When she starting experiencing discomfort when urinating, and some itching, she did an internet search and decided it was cystitis.
She self-medicated – drinking cranberry juice and then using over-the-counter preparations – for six months before seeing me. In fact, she had cervical cancer, and it was advanced.
DON'T EXPECT PRESCRIPTIONS
Unlike a general internet search, online clinics, staffed by real doctors, are a convenient way of encouraging people to seek help.
Reputable online pharmacies have stringent checks before providing prescriptions.
If, for example, you thought you had high blood pressure, there would be a list of questions to answer, including whether you had a medical diagnosis and whether you had taken the medication before.
Looking at the most common list of self-diagnosed diseases, there are very few for which you could buy the correct medication over the counter – for instance, you can’t just buy an asthma inhaler.
Asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression would all need clinical diagnosis before appropriate pharmaceuticals could be prescribed and this would never be done online in the first instance.
But you can have your repeat prescription filed with an internet chemist, so your medication is posted to you when you need it.
YOU'RE NOT AN EXPERT
We can diagnose some problems remotely. We provide medication for erectile dysfunction, hair loss and contraceptives after an online consultation. If you have a more embarrassing problem, you can send a picture or a swab to confirm the diagnosis.
Although this system is open to abuse, on the whole I don’t think people lie.
Why would you want to take medication with potentially severe side effects unless you were absolutely sure that it was right for you
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use Google, but you need to be wary about thinking you know better than the medical profession.