In the world of health apps, calling the doctor is as outdated as flip phones. However, this convenience comes with a twist. While health apps are more popular than ever, they can steer you down a self-diagnosis rabbit hole, a place I’ve found myself more than once. The last time I had a headache I self-diagnosed myself with Hemicrania continua—a rare, barely pronounceable disease. Thankfully, it turned out that it was just from drinking too much coffee.
The bottom line is that health apps have limitations. They’re not a replacement for board-certified doctors. They’re software—great for a quick answer, but they can’t replace the real deal. Let’s explore some of the dangers associated with medical self-diagnosis technology.
Why People Are Increasingly Turning to Self-Diagnosis
There’s no doubt technology is changing preventative healthcare. For example, many apps out there use AI to help you monitor your health. The reason is largely due to convenience and accessibility.
The Magic of Convenience
This has become one of the most impressive yet largely taken-for-granted aspects of modern life. You can have any food appear at your door in 30 minutes with the click of a button. We’re living in a digital utopia where convenience is king, and health apps are no different.
Apps like Skin Vision, WebMD’s Symptom Checker, Symptomate, and Ada have turned smartphones into pocket-sized medical advisors. Did you stumble upon a suspicious mole? Skin Vision’s got you covered. Wondering if that stomach ache is something more sinister than a disagreement with last night’s takeout? Symptomate is on the case.
There are several symptom tracker apps out there. These apps offer health information as quickly and easily as your morning social media scroll. It’s healthcare without the wait times, the paperwork, or the sterile smell of a doctor’s office. It’s healthcare on demand, and it’s as easy as ordering that extra spicy tandoori chicken.
The Power of Empowerment
Let’s not forget the sweet feeling of empowerment that comes with health apps. Who needs a doctor when you’ve got access to all the human knowledge in your pocket?
With health apps, you’re no longer a passive patient, but an active participant in your health. You’re armed with information, ready to take steps to self-treat or to engage in informed conversations with your healthcare provider. All it takes is a few taps on your screen.
Health apps can lead you astray in several different ways.
First off, leaning too heavily on self-diagnosis is like trusting a faulty GPS. Misinterpreting symptoms and their severity can lead you down the wrong path. That’s not to say that human doctors are perfect—they’re not. Misdiagnosis is a real problem.
However, it seems likely that given their availability, health apps might stir up unnecessary anxiety and trigger a frenzy of over-testing. After all, once you start reading that some of your symptoms might indicate cancer rather than an upset stomach, it becomes difficult not to think about it.
It’s also important to remember that health apps can’t cover every ailment or consider your complete personal health history.
Further, relying too much on an app for your medical treatment might delay you from seeking proper medical treatment and even tempt you into risky self-medication. You might find yourself applying band-aid solutions to a problem that needs stitches.
While apps like WebMD’s Symptom Checker ask for your age, sex, and any medication you’re currently taking, they analyze your symptoms in a vacuum, leading to possible misdiagnoses.
What the Research Says About Self-Diagnosis Technology
Scientific research can tell us a lot about the efficacy of health apps. A systemic review of the literature published by npj Digital Medicine found that overall, symptom checkers provide variable and low accuracy when it comes to diagnosis and triage of ailments.
The authors also state that given the increasing push towards adopting this kind of technology across health systems, reliance on symptom checkers could pose a significant risk to patient safety.
Another study published in 2022 by the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that symptom checker apps did not improve between 2015 and 2020. The researchers conclude that few apps were able to outperform regular people in deciding whether emergency care was required or if self-care was sufficient.
This means your gut instinct might be as accurate as symptom checker apps. While these studies paint a rather sobering picture, it’s important to remember that these tools can still be beneficial. They provide a quick reference, help track symptoms over time, and can be a valuable part of your health toolkit.
So, when you pull out your phone for a quick health check, remember to take the results with a grain of salt.
How to Use Health Apps Responsibly
Think of health apps as friendly sidekicks, not superheroes. They can lend a hand, but they don’t wear the cape. While they’re great at assisting, they shouldn’t replace your healthcare provider.
Also, before handing over your health to an app, do some homework. Who developed the app? Are they credible? What do the reviews say? You want to know the information is coming from a trustworthy source. In short, health apps are a part of your wellness toolkit, but they’re not the entire kit. Use them wisely, and always value a real doctor’s opinion.
Technical Alternatives to Self-Diagnosis Apps
Other technical solutions might be more reliable or helpful than symptom checker apps. For example, by accessing medical services through telemedicine, you can chat with real-life healthcare providers, getting that human touch without leaving your couch. Of course, there are also benefits and risks to using telemedicine, so make sure you are informed.
Alternatively, places like MedHelp are like digital town squares, where you can discuss health concerns in a community moderated by healthcare professionals.
Lastly, if you have already been diagnosed with a condition, support groups like Smart Patients offer a virtual shoulder to lean on. They’re safe spaces to share experiences and learn from people who share your symptoms.
Staying Safe During Self-Diagnosis
Health apps for self-diagnosis as well as online forums and virtual support groups can each play a role in your wellness journey. But remember, they’re the backups to your primary healthcare provider.
So, when using these digital tools, recognize their benefits and limitations, and always consult a professional when in doubt. Remember: technology can guide, inform, and empower you. But it’s your job to use it wisely.