Doctor, I see floaters in my vision. I think I have a retinal detachment!
I don’t need an exam because I did a screening online.
I put a moist teabag on my eye so it would heal faster.
I know I can’t have glaucoma because I smoke pot every day.
Did I get your attention with that last one? The truth is, these are all statements I’ve personally heard from patients. Welcome to the world of the Internet and self-diagnosis.
According to Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, more than one-third of U.S. adults use the Internet to diagnose medical conditions. This includes people who look up information for someone else, but this probably accounts for the patient who thinks they have worms in their corneas because that’s what their Aunt Marge found on a Google search. The patient disagrees with Aunt Marge, certain that the problem is a contact lens that floated behind his eye.
Joking aside, problems from self-diagnosis are no laughing matter (although I must admit the pot comment caused me to audibly laugh). We do live in a world where information is extremely accessible. The problem with this reality is that much of this information, especially medical information, is often inaccurate, misleading, or simply does not provide enough context to come close to replacing a diagnosis from a trained professional. How many patients presenting for an exam with recent floaters expressed concern about losing their vision because they read something online? How many of those floater patients actually lost their vision? Information gleaned from the Internet causes many people to jump to the worse case scenario. Unfortunately, fear can be paralyzing and cause some people to avoid going to a doctor altogether.
The good news: According to the above referenced study, out of the people who go online for medical information, 46 percent said what they found online led them to believe they needed help from a medical professional. The bad news: Of the same group, 38 percent said they thought they could treat it at home. And while not every condition is an emergency, consider that less than half of the patients in the study said that a doctor confirmed their self-diagnosis. Only 1% claimed talking to a medical professional was “inconclusive.”
Enter social media, where suddenly anyone with a smartphone and a Facebook account can pretend to be a doctor. Why didn’t you come in sooner? Because a guy I’m Facebook friends with told me I was fine. I haven’t seen him since high school, but I recall him being smart at the time.
It’s time to get in front of this issue docs! Below are a few suggestions.
Often times, better communication goes a long way to divert patients from an overreliance on self-diagnosis. And while I poked a little fun at some of my previous patients, let me now turn the table on myself. In my 2nd year of optometry school we leaned about brain tumors and how one of the symptoms was “the worst headache of your life.” Guess who got the worst headache of his life 2 weeks later? Guess who spent the next couple weeks at Barnes & Noble Bookstore (early Internet days) pouring through medical references?
I’ve been there, and there’s a good chance you’ve been there too. Be empathetic. Be understanding. But don’t miss an opportunity to educate.
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