How Bad Is Self-Diagnosis?

Girisha Bharadwaj
Girisha Bharadwaj23 Aug 2022

At its worst, self-diagnosis is life-threatening. Every time we feel symptoms developing in our body, it can be intriguing to go online, attempt to piece together information, and diagnose ourselves. However, self-diagnosis can not only deliver incorrect information but can be dangerous. While there is an abundance of information available online, nothing can replace a visit to your doctor. 

What is Self-Diagnosis?

As the term suggests, self-diagnosis is the act of diagnosing or identifying one’s medical conditions. Most of the time, people use resources on the internet to make sense of their symptoms. In 2015, a study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that almost 33 percent of adults in the US regularly use the internet for self-diagnosis. By 2018, this number grew up to 44 percent, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. 

Why do People Self-Diagnose?

With so much information available to us at the click of a button, it is hard to resist the urge to find answers to our questions. However, no one is more equipped to address medical concerns than a licensed medical professional. When we self-diagnose, we are acting on our assumption that we understand the subtleties of making a medical diagnosis. This assumption can prove to be rather dangerous. That is especially true for people struggling with mental health issues. 

From the perspective of a medical professional, arriving at a medical diagnosis is a complicated and often time-consuming process. Even with years of rigorous medical training and education, doctors need to go through a series of steps before arriving at a conclusion about their patient’s condition. They need to take note of their medical history, conduct physical examinations, get the patient tested for relevant illnesses or infections, and consult a specialist for more clarification. 

What Are The Dangers Of Self-Diagnosis?

In a report published by the Atlantic, it was found that almost 97.5 million Americans used online resources to get information on health issues. A rather popular health information website, WebMD had over 25.2 million visitors. WebMD is one of the many websites that offer services like online “symptom checkers” to their users. While it might seem convenient to go online, type in your symptoms, and get an immediate diagnosis, no research proves such diagnoses’ accuracy. A lot can go wrong as more and more people choose to trust their self-diagnosis instead of visiting a licensed medical professional. Below are some dangers of making your own medical diagnoses. 

Causes Anxiety or Stress 

As discussed before, it is not uncommon for people to turn to the internet for comfort when feeling anxious about their health symptoms. For instance, immediately after the first case of COVID-19 was publicly announced, online searches for the word ‘coronavirus’ increased by 36 percent on the same day. This is just one of many pieces of evidence for the claim that the internet plays a significant role in people’s health management. 

However, a Google search of your symptoms often leaves you feeling more anxious than relieved. Search engines are designed to present to the user every piece of information on the web which is directly or remotely related to the search words. As a result, search engines often come up with a range of illnesses that may be minor or life-threatening. For a patient who is already anxious about their health, exposure to information can worsen their anxiety. 

According to South West News Service, close to 74 percent of people who attempt to self-diagnose online feel stressed by what they find. Illness anxiety disorder, also referred to as hypochondriasis or health anxiety, is a condition in which the patient worries that they may be seriously ill. Such a patient may have no physical symptoms, or they might find normal body sensations to be signs of a severe illness. Not only does self-diagnosis contribute to health anxiety, but people suffering from health anxiety are more likely to seek online health information. 

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Taking Unprescribed Medication

Upon self-diagnosing, patients might go on to find suitable treatments for their alleged health conditions. Attempts at treating oneself for a self-diagnosed condition can be ineffective and even harmful. Self-medication, the act of using a substance as a treatment for an illness, can be dangerous. Many times, patients might self-medicate to improve their symptoms and avoid visiting a doctor altogether. However, this approach might actually work against their goal

For example, let’s consider a patient experiencing extreme pain in their abdomen. This pain is due to inflammation in their kidneys caused by an infection. However, unaware of this condition, the patient avoids visiting their doctor and self-medicating with over-the-counter painkillers. As the painkillers temporarily relieve the pain, the patient thinks they have resolved their health problem. At the same time, the inflammation grows in their kidneys. Eventually, the patient will have worsened their pain and need urgent medical attention.

Many people who self-medicate are also putting themselves at risk of dependence on a drug. This can further lead to substance addiction. Along with this risk, there are various other concerns regarding self-medicating. These include incorrectly mixing medications, taking inaccurate doses (very important in the case of antibiotics), substance misuse, and medical complications arising from it. 

Spending Money on Treatments 

Self-medicating and providing at-home treatments to oneself means that the patient bears the cost of all the expenses made. Unless a medication, drug, or medical test is prescribed or requested by a physician, many insurance companies might not cover their costs. If a patient with a headache diagnoses themselves with a brain tumor, they might pay anywhere between $375 to $2,850 for getting an MRI scan

Costs like these and the cost of medication can start weighing heavily on an individual over time. Without first talking to a doctor, there are only so many health conditions that we can afford to manage ourselves. For just $45 per month and with no deductible, Mira offers exclusive health benefits, including affordable urgent and virtual care visits, low-cost lab testing, and discounted prescriptions. Our care navigation team can also help you find affordable healthcare services in your area! Sign up today to get started.

Self-Diagnosis Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

Here are a few frequently asked questions about self-diagnosis. 

What are the worst medical conditions to self-diagnose?

Self-diagnosis of any medical condition carries risks for the patient. While there are no conditions categorized as the “worst,” certain medical conditions may bring more harm than others when self-diagnosing. Some of these include chest pains, sciatica, sinus infections, chronic fatigue syndrome, and mental illnesses

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Is self-diagnosis a disorder?

The term cyberchondria refers to a clinical phenomenon wherein an individual makes multiple internet searches about medical conditions and information, which ultimately results in an increased concern and anxiety about their physical health. Cyberchondria has been associated with health anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.  

Should I tell my doctor about my self-diagnosis?

The majority of the risks with a self-diagnosis are seen when the patient avoids visiting their doctor and chooses to self-treat their illness. But, if you are choosing to visit your doctor, you may share your thoughts with them. Dr. Michael Munger, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, shares that “In many cases, information is a good thing as part of the overall collaboration between patients and their physicians and care teams.”

Bottom Line 

With the abundance of information in today’s society, where people search for answers online, it is not surprising that questions about personal health are also part of the mix. Knowledge is a great tool, but it should be used with precaution. Self-diagnosing may help rest your curiosity, but it is always better to get the expert’s opinion, who, in this case, is your doctor!

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Girisha Bharadwaj

Girisha is a second-year graduate student at Columbia University, pursuing a Master's in Public Health. She is excited to combine her passion for Public Health and writing with the hopes of delivering quality health information, one article at a time!