The risks of self-diagnosis and online symptom check

The risks of self-diagnosis and online symptom check

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Virtual healthcare was more widely adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people accessing healthcare providers remotely. However, easy and convenient access to technology means that some people may choose to bypass medical care and see Dr. Google directly, with an online self-diagnosis.

Here’s a common scenario: Imagine someone sitting at home, when suddenly their head starts pounding, their eyes start itching, and their heart rate increases. They reach for their phone or laptop to quickly Google what is possibly wrong.

The search results may provide specific answers about the cause of the person’s symptoms. Or the investigation might incorrectly suggest that they are headed for an early death.


As a researcher in the field of virtual care, I am aware that online self-diagnosis has become very common and that technology has changed the way healthcare is delivered.

Online health information has taken on a new importance during the pandemic, when the use of online sources to assess COVID-19 symptoms and self-assessment has been encouraged. However, the act of online self-diagnosis is not new.

In 2013, it was reported that more than half of Canadians surveyed said they used Google search for self-diagnosis. In 2020, 69% of Canadians used the Internet for research. health information, and 25% used online sources to track their fitness or health.

Virtual care and online self-diagnosis share some benefits, such as the convenience of not having to book an appointment, saving travel time to the appointment, and avoiding waiting rooms. However, the main difference between virtual care and Google search symptoms is that there is no direct communication with a doctor when self-diagnosing online.

Some may choose to self-diagnose because they feel it gives them more control over their health, while others may find it helps them better communicate symptoms to their doctor. Some patients may fear misdiagnosis or medical errors.

A woman in casual clothes on a sofa, looking at her phone with her hand on her face, worried
Google symptoms and self-diagnosis can increase health anxiety.

Over time, people can improve their diagnosis using the Internet. Online sources can provide information and support for a specific medical condition. They may also be helpful for people with persistent symptoms who have been unable to obtain a diagnosis from medical professionals.

Using the Internet to learn more about a condition after it has been diagnosed by a health care provider can be helpful and can lessen the stress of a diagnosis if the sites visited are trustworthy.

However, trying to select credible sources and filter out misinformation can be a daunting process. Some of the information found online has little or no credibility. A study focused on the spread of fake news on social media found that fake news traveled faster and more widely than the truth.

Risks of self-diagnosis

Risks of using online health resources include: Increased anxiety and fear. The term cyberchondria can be defined as a person who experiences a great deal of health anxiety when searching for symptoms on the Internet.

Incorrect self-diagnosis is also a danger, especially if it means not seeking treatment. For example, if a person confidently self-diagnoses his stomach pain as gastroenteritis, he may be reluctant to believe his doctor’s diagnosis of appendicitis.

There is also the risk of being so sure that the self-diagnosis is correct that it is difficult to accept a different diagnosis from a medical professional. Misdiagnoses can be even very serious if they do not lead to the detection of a possible heart attack, stroke, seizure or tumor.

Other risks may include increased stress for the patient and physicians, taking or mixing medications ineffectively, and increased costs for treatments or medications that may not be necessary.

Social media and mental health

Social media has given people a voice to share their personal remedies and stories related to alth. The number of active social media users in Canada has increased by 1.1 million since 2021. This raises the question of how people may be influenced by what they see online and whether this may affect health choices.

In 2018, a Canadian Internet Use Survey examined reports of the negative effects of social media use. It found that more than 12% of users said they felt anxious or depressed, frustrated or angry, or envious of other people’s lives.

On the contrary, social networks have also allowed people with mental health problems to feel united by sharing their experiences and support. However, it may also have contributed to self-diagnosis (and potentially misdiagnosis) of mental health problems, such as anxiety and personality disorders. This can put people at physical and mental risk if it leads to inappropriate treatment.

The reality is that online self-diagnosis cannot be prevented. But those who consult Dr. Google should be aware of the potential risks, confirm information found online with a health care provider, and ask health care providers for reliable online sources of information about their diagnoses.

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