Last Updated on October 30, 2023 by Beth Skwarecki
In today’s digital world, we are increasingly reliant on the internet as a source of information. Dominant global search engine Google processes 8.5 billion searches per day which is approximately 99,000 queries per second across the globe.
However, while the internet is a wealth of information not all of it is accurate. This means that the rise of patients seeking medical advice online could be receiving misleading or even harmful advice. So why are so many people turning to the internet for their healthcare?
Why are Patients Seeking Online Advice?
#1. Professional healthcare delays
One of the best things about the internet is that it gives you immediate results. In just a few seconds you are directed to thousands of relevant sites, all claiming to offer the information you need.
With the delays causing a gridlock in the national healthcare system, it can take weeks to get a GP appointment and then months or even years to be referred. At hospitals, patients ready to be discharged are unable to leave due to a lack of home support while people queue for beds at A&E.
Waiting weeks for advice and treatment can be hugely distressing and may cause conditions to worsen before they can get better. This worrying wait is pushing people to seek advice online, either for reassurance or to try and find interim methods for treatment.
#2. A fear of misdiagnosis
The severe backlog of appointments is having knock-on effects, most notably in the level of care received. This is leading to a rise in medical negligence claims for compensation, with over 10,000 cases made against the NHS in 2022 alone.
One of the most common medical negligence complaints is misdiagnosis, where harm occurs due to healthcare professionals failing to correctly identify symptoms and their causes. Misdiagnosis leads to delayed or incorrect treatment which can result in curable conditions becoming serious or even fatal.
With GPs and hospitals overstretched, there are reports of appointments being rushed and patients not being taken seriously when seen. This has instilled a fear of misdiagnosis which is damaging the bond of trust between UK residents and the National Healthcare System.
This lack of trust is pushing people to the internet in an effort to self-diagnose their condition.
The risks of relying on online medical advice
#1. Inaccurate diagnosis
The main risk of relying on online medical advice is an inaccurate diagnosis.
Especially away from reputable sources such as the NHS website, there is a lot of false information and unverified medical advice on the internet. Consider the question-and-answer forums like Quora and Reddit where anyone can comment.
Even when reading a trusted website, there is a good chance of inaccurate diagnosis. Many conditions share symptoms, and it can be challenging for doctors to identify problems in person let alone online.
#2. Unnecessary anxiety
This uncertainty around the condition can cause unnecessary anxiety. Using the internet takes you from ‘ignorance is bliss’ to drowning in a list of potential problems. Many naturally spring to the worst-case scenario which causes excessive worry in the run-up to a physical appointment.
Seeking medical advice online can also cause people to become fixated on an incorrect diagnosis. In extreme cases, people maintain the conviction that their initial findings were correct even after a healthcare professional has told them otherwise. This resistance to the truth can cause patients to ignore advice and seek out the wrong medication, both of which could cause harm.
Beth is Cloudmineinc’s senior health editor and a certified personal trainer. She has over 10 years experience as a science journalist and is the author of two books. She deadlifts over 315 lbs.