Self-diagnosing online? You’ve got company (and they’re also on the wrong track)

You know you’re guilty. You think you’re pretty smart. You’ve watched a lot of House M.D. You’re waaaay too busy, and why bother the doc with this little thing? You’ll just Google your symptoms, check out some possibilities.

Fail! The results of an online survey by a website that posts consumer coupons (OK, not your usual journal material, I admit ... ) suggest that everyone’s doing it, with results that should discourage you from following the trend.

The site conducted a poll of 1,957 of its visitors over 18, as part of research into attitudes of Americans toward healthcare. Almost three-quarters — 74% — said they have tried to diagnose themselves using online sites instead of visiting a doctor first.

Why? A third said they were too embarrassed by their symptoms to raise it with their doctor. (Just ask any doctor you meet: Are they EVER surprised or grossed out by what their patients tell them? No. They’ve seen just about everything.) Just over three-in-10 played the “too busy” card: they had no time to get a real professional’s opinion on a matter of health.


So how’d they do? Of those who acknowledged they had tried to diagnose themselves online rather than consult a doctor first, 52% said they were “panicked” by the result. In all, 68% of those that set out to diagnose themselves decided to visit a physician instead of taking Dr. Google’s word for it.

And here’s the kicker: Of those who sought to diagnose themselves online first, and then went to a doctor, 87% learned that their online diagnosis was incorrect.

The Internet (and this site in particular) is a splendid place to gather health information. But health information on the Web is not uniformly reliable — many sites are primarily set up to sell products and services, and few have any medical professional monitoring their content (to find reliable sources for health information, the government has a healthy living guide that’s a good place to start). And most importantly, health websites do not know your personal and family history, have not examined you and do not have education and judgment tempered by practice and a keen sense of what’s probable and what’s not.

The poll found evidence that we really do know better. Only 21% said they had tried to diagnose their children’s symptoms online. Perhaps we ought to give ourselves the same professional care most of us insist on for our children.