Technology has changed how we live our lives. We’re able to check our schedules from our phones, contact friends in different countries and find information on almost any topic online. But is technology the right answer when it comes to our health?

In the past, when we developed symptoms of illness, the only real option was to visit a healthcare professional to get an official diagnosis. In modern times, however, people can go straight to Google and search for symptoms giving a potential answer in seconds – and from there have the option to seek professional advice, or purchase medication without ever seeing a doctor.

To explore how we use the Internet to research and address our health, and how this can affect patients’ physical and mental health in the long run, Lenstore surveyed over 1,000 UK residents with questions about people’s preferences when it comes to searching online or talking to a medical professional.

Purchasing medication online

It seems that younger people rely more on technology, as older age decreases the likelihood that someone will buy medication based on self-diagnosis: 46% of 16-24 year-olds say they have bought medicine based on their searches on Google, while this figure drops to 32% among 35-44 year-olds and even lower to 5% among those over 55.

Dr Chun Tang, of private healthcare group Pall Mall Medical, has advice on how to reach a compromise between encouraging patients to visit doctors for every issue they face and using the Internet to diagnose themselves: “It’s important that healthcare professionals are guiding their patients to correct and reliable sources of information to ensure that they are not harming themselves.

“Make patients aware of recognised and trustworthy websites as well as the ones they should avoid as biased websites can be selling their product and wrongly presenting incorrect information that does not have the patient’s best interest at heart.

He also stressed that “open communication is the best bet for both patients and health care professionals and should be the ultimate goal. People will always Google their symptoms but giving patients the correct knowledge on how to do it properly can prevent a lot.”

Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to decide how to manage their health, but proper encouragement and resources can assist patients in checking the credibility of sites and cross-referencing with multiple sources.

23% of Brits self-diagnose to avoid visiting health professionals

Being able to research diseases or symptoms without leaving home can be incredibly useful in difficult situations, particularly when visiting a doctor comes with its own risks.

Dr Tang says that the accessibility is the main drive behind self-diagnosis. “Not everyone has access to a doctor, and the Internet has given patients the ability to find information at their own convenience, especially during a global pandemic where many feel uncomfortable going to a clinic or are unable to make an appointment.

“Searching for information on symptoms allows patients to take some responsibility for their own health. They can reassure themselves by finding relevant information written by healthcare professionals on a variety of reliable websites.”

The survey backs him up: 30% of respondents said that they didn’t want to put pressure on the healthcare system if they could self-diagnose instead. But it’s not the only reason for going to the Internet first.

The number one reason that many prefer to use Google before seeing a health professional is to be informed, as 40% of respondents said that they like to know about potential problems before seeing a doctor. And 37% of respondents said they used their searches to help them decide whether they needed to see a doctor at all. Twenty-six percent said it was too difficult to get a doctor’s appointment, and 23% admitted that they simply don’t like visiting the doctor under any circumstances.

As Dr Tang says, self-diagnosis isn’t inherently a bad thing. Finding information and taking control of your own health can be a positive act to reduce stress on yourself and eliminate worries about visiting a doctor during times like the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s important to be careful when researching symptoms online. While many of the reasons people cite for not visiting a doctor upfront might seem reasonable, they’re not always careful when it comes to their own research.

Five percent of respondents don’t apply any sort of method for checking whether the sites they use to self-diagnose their symptoms are credible, and 9% just click on the first link that comes up, meaning that they may be focusing on incorrect data that could misdiagnose them and worsen their situation, either by causing unnecessary stress, or by causing symptoms of concern to go unnoticed.

Thankfully, 60% do check to see if it’s a reputable source when conducting their own research - but even then, without medical expertise there’s risk of misdiagnosis. But rather than rely on professional medical knowledge to confirm their research, 23% of survey respondents said that after Googling their health symptoms they rarely or never follow up with a doctor, and only 34% said they always or frequently do.

Without that medical knowledge, it’s possible that people are misdiagnosing themselves. But 22% of Brits purchased medication the last time they Googled their symptoms - meaning that with an incorrect diagnosis, they may fail to resolve their issues or may even be making them worse. That’s particularly true if they take an unnecessary course of antibiotics, which can cause their efficacy to lessen the next time the medicine really is needed.

Those in the Greater London area are the most likely to purchase medicine as a result of searching for their symptoms, as 42% said they’d made a purchase as a result of the last time they’d Googled their illness. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, was far more trusting of doctors, and only 11% of respondents there had done the same.

“If we think of medical diagnostic processes of going to see a GP, manuals are used which have diagnostic criteria to help not only define potential illnesses and disorders but to cross-reference the influence of other conditions and how they present," notes Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant.

"Self-diagnosis can have a number of negative impacts on our mental health. Firstly, we can become so focused on thinking we know what we have, that we can miss the actual cause of our symptoms. Secondly, we often believe our condition is worse than it actually is, becoming increasingly anxious as we worry about our health and longer-term outcomes. It can cause us to deny symptoms because they don't seem dangerous. Or it can make us internalise worries about every ache and pain, fearing the worst and focusing on the negative.”

29% say Googling symptoms makes them more anxious

Not everyone is set on avoiding seeing someone about their health. Self-diagnosis may be increasingly available and prevalent, but many still prefer the traditional approach when it comes to their symptoms, as 22% said they’ve never Googled one of their symptoms before.

Twenty percent of respondents said self-diagnosis has led them to experience much worse outcomes than if they had just gone to the doctor in the first place.

Of these negative outcomes, a health condition going undiagnosed was reported most by 16-24 year-olds (26% of them), while 32% of 35-44 year-olds reported that Googling their symptoms had a negative impact on their mental health. This was significantly higher than the average – overall, 22% felt that searching for their symptoms negatively affected their mental health, while 20% actually said it had a positive effect.

Despite that, 25% said that Googling symptoms is generally a bad idea, and 29% overall said it makes them more anxious.

According to the survey, 35-44 year-olds are also the most likely to worry about their health (doing so 1.78 times a week on average), only slightly higher than 25-34 year-olds (1.76 times) – both of which are much more regularly than those over 55 (1.48 times). The data also suggest that women are bigger worriers than men, thinking about their health 1.68 times a week compared with 1.5. This shows the real trouble with self-diagnosis, even beyond possible health risks: the effect it can have on mental health.

Dennis Relojo-Howell, founder of psychology website Psychreg, explains: “The internet is a tempting tool for self-diagnosis; it can be an excellent starting point but should not replace seeking professional healthcare (or mental health) advice.

“Also, self-diagnosis can make you anxious and may just inhibit you from seeking professional help.”

To reduce these worries, it’s in the hands of medical professionals to provide clear guidance on what resources may be able to provide relevant information on symptoms, as well as when to bring an issue to a doctor.

By providing clarity, a great deal of stress and anxiety among patients can be alleviated and they can receive better, more definitive guidance.