French study: Diagnosing yourself online often ‘wrong’

Most patients who diagnose themselves at home are wrong about their condition, a new study has shown

People who “diagnose themselves” through online research before going to the doctor in France are wrong about their condition 91% of the time, a new study has shown.

The study, by Lyon-based health startup 360 Medics and published on Thursday October 17, asked 300 doctors about the phenomenon of patients intensively researching their symptoms on the internet before making or attending a GP appointment.

It found that 83% of doctors asked had already seen patients who had “diagnosed themselves” before coming to their appointment.

Yet, it found that 46% of these patients were “often incorrect” about their condition, along with a further 39% who were, the doctors said, “very rarely correct”. A further 6% were “never” correct, the study said.

Less than 10% of patients were “often” or “frequently” correct about their symptoms before visiting the doctor, the study showed.

Online health sites can offer patients considerable information about their symptoms or condition, doctors said, but they can also lead people to panic or worry needlessly when they wrongly believe their common symptoms to be a sign of something rare or very serious.

Dr Jean-Paul Hamon, president of the doctors’ association la Fédération des Médecins de France, said: “[Patients] are much more knowledgeable than before. But these [health] sites are not always trustworthy and can cause anxiety. They can be the best and worst of tools.”

Grégoire Pigné, Loire oncologist and co-founder of 360 Medics, the startup leading the study, explained to Le Parisien newspaper that the excess of information online has “changed the relationship between patient and doctor”.

He said: “We wanted to measure this figure, to see if it was a real phenomenon. Patients nowadays often come to us with a precise idea of what they [think] they have. Sometimes they even say what they want us to prescribe.

"We must explain to patients that their diagnosis is [likely] incorrect, which is not a great place to start when it comes to building a relationship of trust. Sometimes, patients are disappointed to leave the GP without the medicine they wanted.

“But on the other hand, if someone who is ill says to us, ‘I am afraid that I have this condition’, and if they are well-informed, it can help the discussion.

"There are even some patients that are experts, who have chronic illnesses, who have extremely detailed knowledge and can speak as equals with the doctor, and improve their care.”

The study comes after a 2015 report published by the University of Vienne and the University of Queensland, which gave the name “cyberchondria” to patients who consistently worry and/or diagnose themselves with serious conditions after looking up their “symptoms” online.

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