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Business Unusual

The one time searching the internet for your medical diagnosis is a good idea

9 October 2019 7:15 PM
The internet could be the best doctor to determine what is wrong with you and a TV show explains why.

There are over seven billion people on the planet which means at any time there are a lot of us not feeling very well. A 2015 review determined that 95% of us have health problems, a big part of that is that there are a lot more of us that are older and so are affected by age-related conditions. We are also able to diagnose many more conditions than ever before.

It does not mean we know everything nor that any doctor could be expected to diagnose all the known conditions, there are just too many and part of the challenge is that often symptoms are common across many conditions.

For doctors, it is a process of elimination, while most patients expect to get an instant answer and simple cure.


This is a focus on the idiopathic diseases which is any condition with an unknown cause. If you enjoyed watching House back in 2004 for the eight years and 177 episodes you will love Diagnosis a recent documentary series on Netflix in conjunction with the New York Times. The doctor at the centre of it all, Dr Lisa Sanders, was the inspiration and consultant for the House series and the host of this series, but it was her column that started it all in 2002.

Until 2010 she would investigate and report on medical mysteries, but since 2010 she has also published columns that did not have a diagnosis and asked anyone with a view to share it.

Most articles have dozens of comments even when the mystery was solved. Many are from others with the same or similar conditions while others from those who have had good or bad experiences with the medical fraternity. A lot are by doctors themselves. Reading a well-written article about a medical condition is probably more fun for a doctor than reading the actual study notes.

Media have long known about this kind of network effect. It is the reason most stories are discovered not by journalists but by their readers/listeners/viewers.

In looking at the rare and mysterious cases the broad distribution is both able to intrigue those that read it but also allow the writer to find others with perhaps the same condition.

In episode 4 of the series called “looking for a village,” we are introduced to a child that appears to go limp at a moment’s notice. Like a machine with a glitch that caused it to reboot periodically, the young girl would often be more likely to be affected when most happy. Her condition was not only rare but the few cases of people with a similar condition did not include a way to contact them. The column found another young boy in Denmark and another young girl in the US with the same genetic condition. While they would not get a cure they would have the opportunity to help each other and any more families with a similar condition, knowing that it was something they could manage.


Using the internet to determine what is wrong with you or a loved one can be exactly the wrong thing to do. Complex medical conditions should not be diagnosed using popular search results. The anxiety it can cause could be as damaging as the actual condition and rather than helping your doctor it may have the opposite effect. The website WebMD is one often used by both those looking to understand more or to challenge their doctors, even they warn about the risks of trying to find your own diagnosis.

Another option would be to try a crowdsourcing medical site like CrowdMed, it is still early days, but services like this managed by hospitals or training facilities or the government departments may help the public get a credible starting point to determine if they should see their GP and what they should share to take the shortest time to find and if need be treat the issue.

Might a social network for medical professionals be a good idea? Sermo thinks so and intends to create a network to give those in medicine a network to reach out to for help. New drugs and techniques are developed every year and there is feedback on medicine efficacy and best use.

The final piece might be to get machines to do diagnosis. Given that they can access the symptoms and every listed condition while also being able to cross-reference every available patient case file suggests this is the only way we could hope to process such an enormous set of data. Some trials are encouraging and especially for rare conditions it makes sense for a national or even international tool to be developed to give doctors everywhere the ability to tackle puzzling cases.

If nothing else machines may provide an always-available port of call for someone to determine if their symptoms warrant a visit to their GP or just some rest.

While technology offers some good options, it does not prevent the risk of sharing your medical conditions online. From the negative comments of trolls accusing you of sadfishing to you being targeted by those wanting to manipulate you, to compromising your privacy it is best to be extremely careful what you share.

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9 October 2019 7:15 PM

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