The Risks of Using the Internet to Self-Diagnose

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A majority of people turn to the Internet for health-related information. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2021, 93% of American adults had access to the Internet.

Studies report that between 67.5% and 81.5% of American adults have looked online for health-related information.

This increasing trend has pros and cons. One significant downside is that self-diagnosis and self-treatment based on internet findings can be hazardous to your health.

In this article, you'll learn the potential problems of self-diagnosis and treatment, who searches for health information, how to use information safely and responsibly, and how to find reliable websites for medical information.

Woman with a cold looking at digital tablet sitting on couch
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Potential Problems

The Internet has changed everything. People used to get the bulk of their health information from their doctors and other healthcare providers. Now, anyone can easily access health-related information and people come to appointments armed with information.

Not only is there a lot of information out there, some is credible and some is not. Even when the website itself is accurate, it's possible for someone without medical training to misinterpret it.

Healthcare providers often worry about how you'll use the information. Many of them say online information is best when you use it to supplement conversations with them, not as a replacement.

Problems can arise when you use online medical information to diagnose or treat yourself:

  • Becoming overly certain: You may be convinced about a self-diagnosis and then have trouble believing a different diagnosis from your provider.
  • Unnecessary scares: Some symptoms can be due to a minor, passing illness or something deadly. It's easy to latch on to the worst-case scenario, which usually isn't accurate.
  • Unnecessary tests: You may get overly worried about a particular diagnosis and insist on tests your provider knows you don't need, leading to wasted time and money.
  • Unreliable sources: Anyone can post online. Information may be inaccurate, misleading, or even intentionally manipulative.
  • Confirmation bias: Whether you're worried that you're dying or certain your symptoms mean nothing, you can probably find a website out there to agree with you.
  • Dangerous treatments: Treating yourself can lead to serious harm from side effects, overdose, dangerous drug interactions, or taking something ill-advised due to your medical history.

Anytime you want to change your treatment regimen, you should talk to your healthcare provider. That goes for medications, supplements, and alternative treatments.

Recap

A majority of American adults use the Internet for health information. That can lead to problems including unnecessary stress over an incorrect self-diagnosis, unnecessary medical tests, and self-treatments that could be harmful. Not all health information online is reliable.

Who Searches for Health Information?

A 2020 survey looked at who was most likely to search for health information online. The most common searchers are:

  • White
  • Women
  • Employed
  • College educated
  • Between the ages of 35 and 64
  • Making more than $50,000 per year

The Digital Divide

This research spotlights the digital divide—who does and doesn't have Internet access. Inequalities in access create obstacles to finding health information in the very people already likely to have problems accessing healthcare: those who are uninsured or underinsured, are unemployed, and have lower incomes.

People with depression were 42% more likely to look for online information. Researchers suggest that's because the stigma surrounding mental health makes people reluctant to bring it up with their provider.

Recap

People who access health information online the most are 35 to 64 years old, white, employed, college-educated, women, earning more than $50,000 per year. Many people with no insurance and low incomes lack Internet access as well as healthcare access.

Using Online Information Responsibly

Using health information online can be a positive thing. One study says online health information "is becoming an increasingly important component of health and disease management."

Online health information is best used to:

  • Learn more about your diagnosis than your provider has time to teach you
  • Point you toward treatments you may want to discuss with your provider
  • Find support from other people with the same chronic condition

You may find a lot of information online that you want to discuss with your provider. Presenting them with a huge packet of information at your appointment is unlikely to be helpful, though.

Instead, try to summarize so you can cover the information in the small amount of time you're allotted during appointments. Also, ask your provider whether you can exchange information between appointments via an online patient portal.

Recap

Use online health information to see if you need a medical appointment or emergency treatment, to learn more about a diagnosis, or to find treatments to discuss with your provider. See if you can talk between visits via a patient portal.

Choosing Reputable Websites

Among the most important things to keep in mind is that you should only look for health information on reputable websites. A little knowledge can help you weed out the ones that are best avoided.

When possible, go to websites from:

  • Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Respected medical centers, university medical schools, and medical organizations such as the American College of Rheumatology
  • Respected advocacy organizations such as the American Heart Association

Large health-related websites can offer a wealth of information, but they're not all created equal. Some things to look for include:

  • Check the bottom of the page for a red and blue HON Code badge. That's a certification from the Health on the Net Foundation, which rates sites for their accuracy.
  • Look for citations throughout the article and/or reference lists at the bottom of the article. If they don't tell you where the information came from, be skeptical.
  • Look for publication or update dates at the top or bottom of the article so you know you're getting current information.

Some online information is too general, while some sites get bogged down in medical jargon. Try to find those that explain medical terminology and make the information easy to understand.

Summary

Most people look for health information online. It can lead to problems with unreliable information, self-diagnosis, self-treatment, and unnecessary worry and expense.

The most common health information searchers are also those most likely to have health insurance and access to care. A digital divide further disadvantages people with poor or no health insurance and lower incomes.

Online health information can be used responsibly. Use it to better understand a professional diagnosis, learn about potential treatments to discuss with your provider, and find other people with the same condition.

Reliable websites are from government agencies, reputable medical centers, universities, professional organizations, and advocacy groups. On large health-related sites, look for HON Code certification, dates, and references.

A Word From Verywell

Information gathered from the Internet can be helpful, such as when you find information that helps you manage a chronic condition better.

It can also be detrimental, such as when someone needlessly frets over a self-diagnosis, or worse—self-treats a self-diagnosis and does themselves harm.

Your healthcare provider considers many things beyond a symptom list to reach the right diagnosis, and they prescribe treatments based on your complete medical history. Protect yourself by letting them do their job.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Rasmussen University. Are you really dying? Discovering the dangers of self-diagnosis. Updated July 12, 2017.