Visiting Dr Google can lead to a case of misdiagnosis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

Using the internet to self-diagnose health problems may make people more prone to believing they are sicker than they really are, a local study has found.

Meanwhile, they are better at diagnosing others with the same symptoms, according to researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's marketing department.

'In today's weird world in which sometimes people prefer going online to find answers, symptom-matching on the internet is very common, and it doesn't help them,' said Professor Jaideep Sengupta, who co-authored the study with graduate student Yan Dengfeng.

Published in the latest issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, the study says those who go online to self-diagnose tend to put too much emphasis on their symptoms - given that is all they see online - and ignore the general likelihood of having a particular disease.

'For example, when someone else suffers from indigestion, we tend to accurately perceive it as just indigestion, but experiencing the same symptom ourselves might lead us to think 'Oh my god' and worry that we're having a heart attack,' he said.

He said such self-diagnosis was 'very common', but did not have local figures to support it.

A similar poll in the United States last year found that 74 per cent of almost 2,000 respondents had tried to diagnose themselves using websites, instead of visiting a doctor.

A third said they were too embarrassed by their symptoms to see a doctor, while another third said they were too busy.

Twenty-one per cent said they had tried to diagnose their children's symptoms online.

The HKUST study took about two years to complete. More than 1,500 respondents were asked to imagine that they or someone else were suffering from common symptoms such as cough, fever, runny nose, and headache. They then had to assess how likely they or the other person had contracted either swine flu or regular flu.

The study found the subjects were much more accurate when assessing other people's symptoms, and were prone to misdiagnose themselves - thinking their illnesses were more serious than they really were.

'Since they are likely to misdiagnose themselves, they may end up taking unnecessary medication, which is bad,' Sengupta said.

He suggested that policymakers raise awareness of general health risks by highlighting the behaviours that can lead to certain diseases - for instance, unprotected sex increases the chances of HIV - so people will know if it is something they have done.

Doctors have advised people against using websites like Wikipedia to search medical conditions.

'One of the easiest ways to get rid of this bias is to see a real doctor instead of Dr Google. A real doctor has much more knowledge and will take the prevalence of a disease into consideration, which those who self-diagnose fail to do,' Sengupta said.

He added the study was funded by the University Grants Committee, not doctors. 'Although my doctor friends were not unhappy with the result when they heard of it,' he said.

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