February 10, 2019 Daniel Naranjo Sampson
The threat of disease carries psychological weight. This causes many people to use the internet as a research tool in their healthcare. Research supports this idea since perception of disease risk is a vital influence on health behavior. Some people even try to use the internet as a diagnosis tool. How should we feel about that, and can self-diagnosis improve patient outcomes?
One of the first things to note about modern self-diagnosis is that it’s not disappearing. A 2013 Pew Research study found that 35% of U.S. adults have gone online to research their conditions. Another study found that this number skyrockets to 75% among college students.
Already, people are using the internet as a healthcare resource, especially people from younger generations. Many of these patients may be using the internet along with traditional care, but it’s inevitable that some won’t. This displaces the work of doctors, who are meant to be wholly in charge of care. Only doctors can examine patients, give diagnoses, and set treatment plans—and the internet lets anyone do these tasks for themselves.
There are sound reasons for not trusting patients with those tasks. One reason is that patients don’t receive medical training like doctors do. Without that education, patients might not make sound decisions about their health. They can mislabel their symptoms or misdiagnose them, which is likely since search engines aren’t made to deliver sound medical advice. Studies have found that people googling causes of their headaches are just as likely to find ‘brain tumor’ as they are to find ‘caffeine withdrawal.' Self-diagnoses can also lead to unnecessary panic when patients don’t have the context of what they find, worsening their mental health. However, although these problems are valid, they are avoidable as long as patients engage in skepticism and good research.
On the other hand, self-diagnosis shines in how it empowers patients and balances the doctor-patient relationship. It’s often the most efficient form of care, requiring nothing more than over-the-counter medication, and it can forgo the need for doctor's visits. Self-diagnosis also lets patients understand their diagnoses for themselves. This frees patients to question their doctors, shifting the doctor's monologue to a dialogue. What patients learn via the internet can even bring clarity and meaning to their sicknesses.
This means that self-diagnosis helps create a partnership between doctors and patients. This Patient-as-Partner model is brand new and a major boon because it views patients as experts on their own health. Patients are the ones who experience illness and see which treatments work. By recognizing patients’ experiences as expertise, healthcare providers can improve their quality of care drastically. As a result, patient experiences are enriched by their healthcare providers’ trust.
While it's strange and new, there is nothing inherently malicious about self-diagnosis. It’s often more efficient than traditional medicine since it requires fewer doctor’s visits, and it can even bring peace to suffering patients. Along with adaptive care, self-diagnosis pushes society towards a Patient-as-Partner model, which will lead to more responsive care that values patients’ experience with their own illnesses. The goal of medicine is to improve patients’ lives, so when patients learn to improve their own lives, healthcare providers should trust the patients to do just that.