- Globally, self-diagnosis is becoming more common due to the proliferation of self-diagnosing tech tools and the increased availability of telemedicine.
- These tech tools have the potential to empower communities by providing access to healthcare that was previously unavailable.
- One of the main concerns about self-diagnosis in Africa is the possibility of misdiagnosis. Individuals may be unable to accurately diagnose their condition without the assistance of a trained healthcare professional, resulting in delayed response or ineffective treatment.
Until I started writing this article, I assumed every Internet user had self-diagnosed a medical condition. But I was wrong.
According to Statista, as of April 2022, over five billion people use the Internet globally, accounting for 63.1% of the global population. In the same year, Africa had about 570 million Internet users, with Nigeria having the highest concentration of users.
Some people, however, do not even require tech tools to self-diagnose. They simply notice their symptoms and assume they have a specific condition. Victor Olaniyan, my colleague at Techpoint Africa, was such a person.
Olaniyan dislikes using tech tools to diagnose his illnesses. He was diagnosed with resistant malaria a few years ago, a condition in which inadequate malaria treatment gives the pathogen increased resistance to standard malaria drugs.
After going to the hospital and complaining about his symptoms, the doctor prescribed medication without running any tests. For a while, the symptoms continued, and he felt he had sufficient information to self-diagnose.
So, anytime he had similar symptoms, he assumed it was malaria and ordered medication.
While it’s difficult to determine the exact percentage of African Internet users who have either self-diagnosed an illness, many people have likely used the Internet to learn more about their symptoms and possible causes.
Because of smartphone penetration and increasing Internet access, many Africans now have easier access to information about illnesses and health conditions.
In Africa, where access to healthcare is often limited or prohibitively expensive, many people turn to the Internet for information, support, and self-diagnosis of their symptoms.
What exactly is self-diagnosis?
Self-diagnosis is the process of identifying and interpreting one's symptoms and determining a possible diagnosis without the assistance of a medical professional.
You can self-diagnose via several methods, including researching symptoms online, using symptom checkers or home testing kits, or interpreting the results of a physical examination.
Individuals conduct self-diagnosis independently or with the help of telemedicine platforms. But using telemedicine for self-diagnosis isn’t always the case.
Why is telemedicine considered a form of self-diagnosis?
Telemedicine and self-diagnosis are related but distinct concepts.
Telemedicine uses technology to provide healthcare services remotely, including virtual consultations with healthcare professionals, remote monitoring of a patient’s health, and sharing medical information.
It is similar to self-diagnosis because you can access healthcare and information without physical contact with a medical professional.
According to Samuel Okwuada, CEO of Remedial Health, a healthtech startup, telemedicine is similar to self-diagnosis because the medical practitioner is not present with the patient.
Some health professionals may prefer face-to-face interactions with their patients. And many believe that telemedicine consultations lack the personal touch important in building trust and rapport with patients.
Okwuada claims that if a patient is in front of a medical practitioner, they can learn more about their condition from their expressions.
Telemedicine does not involve physical examination by a professional, resulting in missing critical clinical signs that a medical professional might have spotted if present.
It's worth noting that telemedicine is a rapidly evolving field, and healthcare professionals' acceptance of this technology varies.
Consequently, telemedicine should not replace an in-person visit and examination by a healthcare professional when necessary, as some conditions may necessitate a professional examination or lab tests for proper diagnosis.
Does this mean a health professional can't misdiagnose your condition if you visit them?
While trying to get a diagnosis for my neurodevelopmental disorder — autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — I spoke with a doctor online about my symptoms before he referred me to a neurologist. I met the neurologist twice, ran some tests, and still got an incorrect diagnosis.
Therefore, it is critical to consult the appropriate health professional to obtain an accurate diagnosis. For example, if you suspect you have a mental illness, you should consult a psychiatrist, therapist, or clinical psychologist.
Consulting with another clinical psychologist was easier because I had already self-diagnosed my condition before chatting with the doctor online. So, I knew that was the best option.
For context, I thought I had autism or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia after reading online resources on neurodevelopmental disorders and taking some screening tests. Because of the stigma attached to autism, I opted for ADHD. However, after consulting with a specialist, I was diagnosed with autism.
Is self-diagnosis detrimental?
Aanu Jide-Ojo, Psychotherapist and Founder of a mental healthtech startup, UsTherapy, says that self-diagnosis should be a starting point, a curiosity prompt, not an actual diagnosis.
She believes it should be a part of the diagnosis process, not the entire process, because it is always important to get curious about one's lived experience.
“Often, people self-diagnose to make meaning out of their experiences, name them, and validate them,” Jide-Ojo says.
Self-diagnosis can assist individuals in gaining control of their health and making more informed decisions about their treatment options.
It can also help individuals identify potential illnesses and seek medical attention early, leading to better health outcomes.
Improving access to healthcare for people living in remote or underserved areas and those with limited access to healthcare due to cost or other barriers is yet another benefit of self-diagnosis.
It can help break down the stigma associated with discussing certain health conditions and empower people to take control of their health.
But Okwuada and Jide-Ojo think self-diagnosis can also be detrimental.
“Self-diagnosis can be detrimental if you don’t back it up with an actual diagnosis. Psychological assessment is nuanced as several disorders mimic each other, so one can choose a label that isn’t correct. Applying any intervention for an incorrect diagnosis can create harm,” Jide-Ojo explains.
Self-diagnosis can lead to a higher risk of misdiagnosis, which can delay correct treatment and negatively affect the patient's health outcomes.
Olaniyan, for example, was always self-diagnosing until a time when he used medications but didn't get better.
“I self-diagnosed malaria and bought drugs to treat myself. It mostly worked, but the symptoms returned after a few months. It was as if I was treating malaria every month. One particular month, I used regular drugs, but nothing changed. I was weak.”
He was later diagnosed with malaria and typhoid fever after seeing a doctor.
Self-diagnosis can cause a delay in seeking professional medical help, causing the condition to worsen and become more challenging to treat. For instance, it took me months to get an accurate diagnosis, making it difficult to develop coping strategies at work and home.
Additionally, self-diagnosis may result in over-diagnosis, resulting in unnecessary treatment and financial burdens. It can lead to the selection of ineffective treatment options, resulting in poor health outcomes and a waste of resources.
Also, self-diagnosis in Africa has the potential to revolutionise healthcare by providing access to healthcare where it was previously unavailable and empowering communities through self-diagnosis tech tools and telemedicine.
However, self-diagnosis can be harmful if not used responsibly.
Popular tech tools used for self-diagnosis
In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of technology for self-diagnosis. Interestingly, many people are turning to online resources and mobile apps to diagnose and manage their health conditions.
Here are a few examples of such tools.
1. Search engines
When ill, many people turn to search engines, including Google and Bing, to discover what's wrong with them.
Fun fact: Google receives over 1 billion health-related questions per day.
Individuals can use Google to search for information about specific symptoms and conditions, which can help them learn more about their symptoms and possible causes.
Google also enables people to research and review doctors and other medical professionals, which can assist them in locating a doctor who specialises in treating their condition.
However, if you go to Google for every ache, pain, or symptom because you're anxious, you’re likely suffering from cyberchondria.
Cyberchondria is a clinical condition in which repeated Internet searches for medical information result in excessive concerns about one's physical health.
2. Symptom checkers
When you input your symptoms, symptom checkers can calculate the possibility of having a specific condition. Roughly between three and seven minutes, you will receive feedback on potential causes and the steps to take.
Symptom checkers are websites and apps that ask questions ranging from demographics and risk factors to clinical signs and perceived symptoms. Examples include Waziki, Buoy, Isabel, Symptomate, and Ada.
However, doctors mostly use symptom checkers to engage patients earlier in the patient journey.
Symptom checkers also provide users with articles and videos on related health topics.
3. Online resources and smart devices
Online resources from reputable health websites, including WebMD, Healthline, Patient.info, and Mayo Clinic, give individuals access to a wide range of health information from reputable sources.
People can also take online screening tests by filling out a questionnaire with their symptoms to see if they meet the criteria for a diagnosis.
In addition to online resources, people use several tech tools for self-diagnosis, including wearables that can track and monitor various health metrics and virtual reality tools that can simulate medical procedures and train healthcare professionals.
4. Social media
In the last few years, if you've spent time on social media, particularly TikTok and Twitter, you'll agree these platforms impact self-diagnosis significantly.
Social media platforms have evolved into forums for people to share their health struggles and diagnoses, particularly mental and neurodevelopmental disorders. They enable users to connect with others with similar symptoms or conditions and share information and advice.
However, self-diagnosing on social media can result in exaggerated symptoms or failure to recognise the cause of these symptoms. It also normalises symptoms that can be debilitating for people suffering from mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders.
Further, information on social media is sometimes inaccurate, and distinguishing between credible and untrustworthy sources can be difficult.
The rise of social media has also resulted in the spread of misinformation, which can be harmful to self-diagnosing individuals.
Despite these challenges, social media's impact on self-diagnosis is undeniable. And it will continue to shape how we access health information.
At this point, it is critical to note that not all information on the Internet and social media is accurate and reliable, leading to a misinterpretation of symptoms and wrong self-diagnosis.
Consequently, self-diagnosis can lead to increased anxiety and psychological distress when individuals cannot make a correct diagnosis or find the information they need to understand their symptoms.