The internet is a magical place where you can find just about anything. Unfortunately for doctors, medical misinformation tends to spread across the internet just like everything else, and anonymous people on sites like Reddit don’t mind issuing medical advice despite having no expertise. A new study published in JAMA took a close look at the particularly troubling trend of STD “crowd-diagnosis.”
STDs are absolutely booming in the United States. Recent stats reveal that some STDs are reaching all-time highs, and hookup apps have been blamed for the spikes. On Reddit’s r/STD board, the number of people asking for STD advice from anonymous visitors is on the rise.
To get an idea of just how bad the problem is, the researchers selected a sample of 500 posts at random, scouring each one to determine whether the person was asking for diagnosis and whether that request came after the individual had already visited a real doctor. The resulting statistics weren’t very encouraging.
Based on the sample, the researchers determined that roughly 58% of the posts were asking for a diagnosis, and 31% of those posts included an image of the potential STD in question. Of those who requested a crowd-diagnosis, only around 20% of them had received a previous diagnosis from a doctor or health care professional.
Despite the unofficial nature of such requests, the internet was more than happy to offer its own diagnosis, with 87% of posts requesting a diagnosis receiving a reply, typically within a few hours.
“Although crowd-diagnoses have the benefits of relative anonymity, rapid response, and multiple opinions, the underlying accuracy of crowd-diagnoses is unknown given that responders may be operating with limited information about the patient, and responders may lack medical training,” the researchers explain. “Misdiagnosis could allow ongoing disease transmission, and others viewing a post may wrongly self-diagnose their own conditions.”
It’s a double-edged sword. Having people willing to offer advice when someone is in need is a great thing, but unless that advice comes from someone who knows what they’re talking about it’s an incredible gamble. The researchers suggest that professional health care experts could attempt to partner with such communities to offer more accurate advice or urge individuals to visit real doctors when things are particularly bad.