In recent years, people have increasingly turned to the internet for answers to health worries, but it comes at a cost to the health system itself, according to doctors.
The Courier Mail reported on Wednesday that in Queensland, patients seeking health advice from ‘Dr Google’ had increased by 130 per cent in the past year, with nearly half of all internet users admitting to self-diagnosing on the basis of online searches.
And while the Australian Medical Association’s Queensland President, Dr Bill Boyd, 65, told Starts at 60 that self-diagnosing was nothing new, he did say that patients who were particularly insistent that their ‘diagnosis’ be investigated did often managed to push doctors into conducting costly and unnecessary tests.
“There’s long been a sort of unofficial thing called the lay referral system,” Boyd explained. “And the lay referral system is where people have some sort of symptom, pain, lump or bleed or something that doesn’t work and they ask their next-door neighbour, or they ask their colleague or their relative what they think. And they get all sorts of advice and non-professional opinions and that’s what we call the lay referral system.”
Boyd said that sometimes the advice obtained from friends and family or the internet was accurate, but other times it was way off, and the information could cause patients more worry, rather than setting their mind at ease.
“The trouble is that they’ve had a headache for two days, they go on the internet and next thing they know, they’ve got a brain tumour,” he said. “Or some sort of rash which they work out is leprosy, in fact, it’s probably just a fungal rash.
He used the example of benign lumps called lipomas. While they’re common and harmless, a person who had previously used the internet to self-diagnose the lumps may not believe a doctor when they tell them the condition isn’t as bad as they think.
“Quite often they’ll come along with pages and pages they’ve printed off from the internet or multiple websites they’ve been to and worked out what’s wrong with them,” Boyd explained.
He said patients could become quite demanding when it came to further testing, and the more insistent a patient became, the more likely a doctor would agree to unnecessary investigations and procedures. And if a doctor told a patient they did not need further tests, the patient would often doctor-shop until they found a medic willing to cooperate, he added.
“That costs the system,” he said. “I don’t know what the numbers are, but I’ve seen somebody today who came to me with something that was found on the internet and I had to stop and explain to them why it wasn’t that by any means. It happens every day across Australia and across the western world.”
The AMA recommends seeing a family doctor in the first instance because they are able to take an objective view of symptoms. “They will just tell you it is that or it is not that,” Dr Boyd added. “And if they don’t know, they know the correct place to ask the questions.”
But if you are keen on some self-diagnosis, he advised picking your source of information well.
“Wikipedia, I’d have to say, is useful,” he noted. “Some of the articles need to be curated a bit better. But by far and away, the best ones are the medical colleges, the college of surgeons, the college of physicians, the college of obstetricians and paediatricians, all those colleges.
“They’ve got a lot of information on those sites, both Australian and British sites.”
He added that it was best to stay away from websites run by law firms or websites that claimed to have cures that ‘baffled’ doctors, especially those that offer ‘miracle cures’ at a high cost.
“I’d advise everybody, but particularly people over 60, to have a solid relationship with their family doctor, who they know,” he said. “The GP is the port of call and the safest place for all these people to go. Have a GP, stay with that GP and if you’re sick, go and see your GP.”