Woman coughing with tissue while searching on laptop

Why You Shouldn’t Self-Diagnose Online (And Tips If You’re Going to Anyways)

There’s no good time to get sick. Maybe you feel the beginning of a sinus infection while driving the kids to school. Or you wake up in the middle of the night with mysterious stomach pain. Whatever the symptoms, a doctor’s appointment means putting your life on hold. So you plug your symptoms into a quick internet search. What’s the harm if you’re able to self-diagnose online? 

Having instant access to a wealth of medical knowledge can be reassuring. It can also be terrifying. Is your stomach pain indigestion or appendicitis? Is that headache the result of stress or a brain hemorrhage? If you’ve fallen down the self-diagnosis rabbit hole, you already understand the joys and pains of Dr. Google.

According to Dr. Naveed Saleh, patients typically use the internet in two ways. First, to decide whether or not they need to see a medical professional. And second, to learn more about a diagnosis they’ve already received. The latter is especially true if they distrust the diagnosis.

Doctors’ responses to self-diagnosis range from mild irritation to downright concern. Often, the problem is that self-diagnosers second guess the doctor. They’re sure the doctor has missed crucial information that the internet revealed. The direct result? Board-certified internist Dana Corriel, MD says, “I get 20 and 30-year-olds coming in with complaints of a headache, asking for an MRI to rule out a tumor in the brain.”

We know it’s unreasonable to expect people to stop symptom checking. In fact, the internet is a powerful tool that helps you take your health into your own hands. But there are a few crucial things to keep in mind. Whether you’re an on-the-go symptom checker or a worst-case-scenario prepper, these tips will help you put your health first.

Know your sources

The internet is an incredible tool. Within minutes, anybody can upload their thoughts and share them with the world. Unfortunately, this is also one of its biggest downfalls. Many public health forums don’t require medical credentials.  Anybody can offer advice and make an off-the-cuff diagnosis. All it takes is an internet connection and a little confidence to become Dr. Google.

Another troubling trend is the number of people using social media to crowdsource their health. “People are asking for medical opinions on forums and Facebook groups, even from non-medical audiences, such as parent groups, local groups, and school groups,” says Dr. Andrea Paul, the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer for BoardVitals. While crowdsourcing your health questions isn’t a bad idea, it’s important to understand you might not get the most accurate information.

If you turn to the internet for health queries, stick to sites that verify their content and have professional endorsements. Healthcare sites like Mayo Clinic or FamilyDoctor.org are excellent sources for general information. Alternately, curated health blogs like Lumeca’s are full of helpful, accessible information.

Understand how symptom checkers work

Consider the basics of symptom checkers. They are algorithm-driven computer programs that help users with self-diagnosis and triage. Through a wide variety of apps and web platforms, it’s easy to pull up a site and enter your age, gender, and symptoms. Within minutes you have a list of potential diagnoses related to your symptoms. The problem with most symptom checkers is that they’re wrong. Plain and simple. According to a report in the BMJ, an audit of 23 tools showed a correct first diagnosis only 34% of the time.

Where do symptom checkers go wrong? First, they rely on you to self-report symptoms, which can be confusing. What’s the difference between a pounding headache and a tension headache? Is that twinge in your gut a stomach cramp or stomach pain? Was the pain shooting or pinpoint? How do you rate something as mild, moderate, or severe? Plus, symptom trackers gather a relatively small amount of personal information. They use age, gender, and sometimes your weight/height to populate their results. A doctor can also factor in your job, where you live, health history, and family history. This means less guesswork and more accurate diagnoses.

Look for information, not answers

It’s crucial to manage your expectations. There’s a difference between looking for information and looking for answers. Information lets you partner with your physician. But, if you think you’ve found the answer already, you’re less likely to see the gaps in your understanding.

Internet convenience. Board-certified accuracy

The internet can be a powerful tool to help you and your physician work towards a diagnosis. But even advanced symptom checkers cannot replace a doctor’s experience and expertise. With Lumeca, you get the best of both worlds. You can connect with our team of licensed nurses and doctors anytime you have questions about your health.


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