Source: ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Do you have a rash and a sore throat? A high fever? A splitting headache?

Forget spending time and money on seeing a doctor – there is a plethora of internet sites that will help you diagnose your own illness for free.

Simply answer a series of questions about your age, body measurements and symptoms and the internet will do the rest.

The Australian Medical Association says it’s seriously concerned with the increasing number of WA residents who are doing just that.

Last year, a study found nearly 80 per cent of Australians get health information off the net, with almost half of those doing so to diagnose a medical condition.

The AMA’s Doctor Richard Chong says those statistics seem to reflect local trends in WA.

“Every single day I see patients that have come to me after checking their symptoms on the internet,” he said.

“I accept that it’s a part of life now due to the sheer number of people who’re more familiar with the internet.

“To be honest, most people who do it aren’t harmed.”

“They rush in thinking they have something that’s going to kill them when they’re actually fine.”

Dr Chong is, however, concerned about people who don’t go to their GP because their research has reassured them that nothing’s wrong.

“At least with the first group of people, we get to discuss their symptoms because they always come in,” he said.

“The people that don’t are the ones putting their health in their own hands.

“If they get the diagnosis wrong, any condition they have could be mis-managed or not treated at all, which is very dangerous in some cases.”

No other option

The Salvation Army says some people who self-diagnose using the internet do so because they can’t afford to see a doctor.

The charity surveyed almost 2,000 Australians in the lead up to its Red Shield appeal.

More than 20 per cent of respondents said they can’t afford to visit a doctor, while 37 per cent can’t afford to pay for medications prescribed by their GP.

The Salvo’s spokesman Warren Palmer says it makes sense that some of those people will turn to the internet.

“There’s no doubt that as a result of financial hardship, people resort to other means of fulfilling their needs,” he said.

“Cheaper ways of meeting health needs may seem like a good option but often leads to further complications, so we don’t encourage people to pursue this path.

“What we do need is to find ways to make medical assistance more available and affordable for those who are most disadvantaged.”

Mr Palmer says one of the biggest problems is a lack of bulk billing services in some areas.

“There’s no chance that people who are almost below the poverty line can pay for the services of a doctor, let alone a prescription that comes with it,” he said.

“Some of our most marginalised residents don’t actually have a full grasp of what options are available to them.

“So, they perhaps don’t have a healthcare card and therefore can’t access bulk billing.”

The Salvation Army wants to see better education programs to make WA residents more aware of the assistance available.

It’s also calling for more GP clinics to offer a bulk billing option.

User beware

Dr Chong says in certain circumstances, the internet can be an empowering health tool.

“There are very good sites out there and one I recommend to my patients is Beyond Blue because it has great advice and information about depression,” he said.

“The Health Department’s page also has good resources.

“These validated, informed sites are the ones worth visiting.”

Dr. Chong warns that internet enthusiasts who use the web to self-diagnose may get a nasty shock.

That’s because many serious and life-threatening conditions have very common symptoms.

“For example, if you put sore throat in as a symptom, you could come up with a whole lot of nasty things, including throat cancer,” he said.

“One person actually did that and then rushed in to see me.

“After a great deal of cost and effort they were finally reassured they weren’t dying of throat cancer.”

He recalls another patient who mistakenly self-diagnosed himself with gout because he had a red and swollen elbow.

“I said there’s a range of ways we can treat gout, but they won’t help you because you don’t actually have it!”

Despite admitting these sorts of incidents can be frustrating, Dr Chong says he’d never discourage a patient from coming to see him.

“Look, if you’re worried about something and you don’t feel right, then of course please come in,” he said.

“I’m just saying don’t trust the internet over a doctor.

“We want people to know the internet is an un-validated place, where you can’t be sure if the information is accurate.”


This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.