Self-diagnosis: Looking after your health.
Even if you’ve never heard of cyberchondria, you’ve probably experienced it at some point. It refers to the anxiety of researching your symptoms online and coming to a worrying self-diagnosis. And with more than 100,000 health apps out there to help you identify and monitor your symptoms, self-diagnosis is on the rise.
But are these apps doing more harm than good? Many medical experts think so. We’ll explore the benefits and reliability of these online tools and discuss why your GP should still be your first port-of-call.
What are health apps?
Health apps are mobile-based applications that claim to offer some sort of health benefit. They generally fall into two categories: those for people with undiagnosed ailments and those for general health enthusiasts.
There are a wide range of apps on the market that could help users in a variety of ways. They aim to improve sleep, help weight loss, combat food allergy and assist in self-diagnosis. Some are designed to help patients suffering from conditions like diabetes monitor and manage their symptoms. And while experts are generally more concerned about the first category of apps, it’s still worth considering whether the second are turning us into a ‘worried well’ generation.
The problem with health apps
GPs and medical practitioners have reason to be concerned about health apps. They’re causing increasing problems for GPs and patients.
Another cause for concern is that most health apps are untested and unregulated. Almost anyone can create and sell an app on iTunes for example, without having it vetted. That means the advice and information they provide is not 100% reliable, posing a genuine risk of mis-diagnosis.
Information from wearable devices should also be treated with a pinch of salt. In particular, those that monitor heart rate, blood pressure and activity. Apps and trackers can and do malfunction and when this happens it can cause serious anxiety to the wearer. So you should always get advice from your GP or medical practitioner, before jumping to conclusions about your health.
Despite the concerns raised by GPs, some health apps can be beneficial. Apps like activity trackers promote a healthier lifestyle and can have great results. For example, when it comes to managing weight loss, a number of studies have shown that mobile strategies lead to better patient outcomes. In one study, participants lost an average of 3.9 kg more than the standard group using a paper-based weight loss plan.1 This makes sense when you think we all carry our phones with us on the go.
And it’s far easier to track your calorie intake on your mobile than writing it down on a piece of paper.
Although GPs also called into question the accuracy of apps claiming to count users steps and monitor their overall activity, several scientific studies have confirmed their accuracy.2 But when it comes to monitoring heart rate and blood pressure, the jury is still out.
Regardless of the pros and cons of health apps, it looks like they’re here to stay. They’ve been around for more than ten years now and continue to grow in popularity. So if you’re looking for a general wellness app to help you boost your health, activity trackers can be great tools.
The Dr knows best
But when it comes to diagnosing your symptoms, medical practitioners are all in agreement. Your GP - and not the internet - is still the best source of advice. Your own research can still be a talking point in your GP appointment but you shouldn't expect this information to always be correct.
Self-diagnosis often causes people to think their symptoms are more serious than they are. But sometimes the reverse is true. What seems like a minor ailment or twinge can be a sign of a more serious underlying illness, so you should always visit your Dr if you have any concerns.
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1. Spring B, Duncan JM, Janke EA, et al. Integrating technology into standard weight loss treatment: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA Intern Med2013;173:105-112. Spring B, Duncan JM, Janke EA, et al. Integrating technology into standard weight loss treatment: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA Intern Med2013;173:105-11