Medical websites and symptom trackers have become increasingly popular. A free symptom checker application, iTriage, reports over 12 million downloads and a 4.5-out-of-five-star rating from over 100 000 reviews, according to its description on iTunes. However, mental health professionals have maintained that a person who suspects that he or she has a mental illness should see a doctor to help them to get an accurate diagnosis, and self-diagnosis of mental illness online has repeatedly been condemned as unreliable and even dangerous.

Patients may ignore advice of their doctors

Mental health professionals are trained to accurately diagnose mental health problems in patients. They are also equipped with the necessary medical knowledge to give patients advice on dealing with their illness. However, patients who have already looked up their symptoms online may believe that they already know what to do. This may cause them to ignore or argue against their doctor. A physician assistant from a major hospital in New York City noted that patients get stubborn about what they read online, and what they believe their diagnosis should be. In addition, he mentioned that WebMD, a medical website, raises anxiety for patients.

Self-diagnosis can downplay the severity of mental illness

If a person believes that he or she has contracted a mental illness, he or she should immediately consult a doctor or other relevant healthcare professional. The trend towards self-diagnosing mental illnesses reinforces the false idea that a mental illness is not serious and that mentally ill patients are simply weak. A study done by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in Singapore revealed that there is a common perception in the country that those with mental illness can get better if they chose to, and that their condition indicates personal weakness. Researchers behind the study suggested that there could be a stigma towards those with mental illness, such that fear of being associated with the disorder may prevent mentally ill patients from seeking treatment.

People may deceive themselves and become genuinely sick

The mind is a very powerful tool. It can influence the body to a point where people are convinced that they are feeling something that they are not. A new study has shown that people who attempt to fake symptoms of mental illness ended up convincing themselves that they genuinely experience the symptoms. The general consensus amongst healthcare professionals is that most people are impressionable, and when patients read about various ailments, they more or less hypnotise themselves into believing that they have these conditions. This could be problematic for healthcare professionals when they are trying to diagnose these patients.  

Medical websites are not always reliable

A study done by the Black Dog Institute revealed that out of the 49 iOS and Android suicide prevention apps with interactive content reviewed, not many followed “high-quality evidence-based practice.” Some of the apps had even contained potentially dangerous content. This encouraged harmful behaviour such as self-mutilation.

Furthermore, a recent study performed by Harvard Medical School has found that many symptom-checker sites are prone to misdiagnosing the health issues of patients. Madam H Fong, a 54-year-old Singaporean manager, had panicked after an online search about the numbness in her left shoulder came up with many potentially fatal conditions about the heart and the kidney. After seeing a specialist and doing an MRI scan, she realised that the numbness was only due to wear and tear from ageing.

Credibility of medical websites maintained by healthcare professionals

However, it is important to note that some symptom checkers online do give accurate and reliable medical information. This is because they are usually hosted by healthcare professionals. WebMD, a medical website, has board-certified physicians, award-winning journalists and trained community moderators. The staff who are responsible for the content posted include individuals who have advanced degrees in journalism, medical illustration, health communications, clinical informatics, nursing and medicine. The qualifications of all medical professionals working on the site are verified.

Medical websites can also direct patients to get the right medical help. Therefore, they can still be used as a reference when wanting to know more about a mental illness; as long as they are read with caution. Healthcare professionals should be clear in explaining the uses and downsides of such websites to patients. They can also help patients to understand why self-diagnosis of mental illness online is dangerous and not advisable. MIMS

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