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Should social media be used to substitute doctors?

Posted in: General Health 22 Jun, 2012

With technology becoming more advanced and more affordable, online healthcare is a natural progression. But when diagnoses are being crowdsourced and people are relying on social media to tell them whether or not they need to see a doctor, are we taking it a bit too far?

We are undeniably moving into a technology-based society. A study of American children between the ages of eight and 18 showed that they spend seven and a half hours a day online in addition to the time spent watching television and using mobile phones.

These findings show that the use of web-based technology has now seeped into our lives to such an extent that no waking hour is spent away from internet access. With this in mind, it seems only natural that the face-to-face services of a doctor should be the next thing to become obsolete.

For people who do not want to or do not have the time to visit their doctors, there are a number of safe web-based options available, but the latest trend in online diagnosis seems to be social media.

Over the last few years, the number of diagnoses via Facebook have increased substantially, with media outlets picking up story after story of situations of this type. The most famous case is that of the one-year-old boy who was sent home twice with incorrect diagnoses but was subsequently discovered to suffer from the rare Kawasaki disease after two people saw the photos on Facebook and advised the family of what might be wrong.

Another well-publicised case was that of a Bridgend surgeon who saw his friend’s status updates and realised he had an undiagnosed case of acute appendicitis. Thanks to the doctor’s advise, 30-year-old Peter Ball was able to have a life-saving operation in time.

Similarly, a six-month-old baby boy who was given the all-clear by medical professionals, was diagnosed with a condition which causes the head to be misshapen thanks to the advice of a stranger who saw her profile picture and identified the child’s condition.


Naturally, the use of social media has been extremely beneficial for all these patients who might not have been accurately diagnosed had it not been for the input of the people who they were in contact with thanks to their use of Facebook. But does this construe a step too far in terms of how much of physical life is overtaken by the virtual communities we construct?

Online resources should make our lives easier and more convenient, yet it can on occasion do the opposite. Going to see your GP can be easily substituted by an online consultation and your medication can be sent to your house within hours of ordering. But these types of services are carefully monitored in order to ensure optimum safety for their patients. Unfortunately, the use of Yahoo Questions, Facebook or Twitter to identify illnesses could lead to an unprecedented number of misdiagnoses and even cases of hypochondria and paranoia.

There has to be a line between utilising social media as a way of enhancing your quality of life and using it as a substitute for things which require a professional opinion and perhaps crowdsourcing diagnoses is where we should draw it.

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