People Are Crowdsourcing Their STD Diagnoses & It’s A Huge Problem

Here’s why a social media check will never beat a doctor’s visit.

By Madeline Merinuk
social media

Most of us defer to the internet the second something goes wrong. Everything from a funny noise your dishwasher’s making, to a specific ache you just can’t shake is usually answered by Dr. Google. But is there a fine line between doing some harmless research and actually harming your health even more by failing to see a doctor? It turns out, more and more people are crowdsourcing STD diagnoses, of all things. Sure it’s good to stay informed, but if you suspect there’s a real issue going on with your body, you should always feel safe enough to visit a doctor. 

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A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Nov. 5, 2019 proves there’s a huge disconnect when it comes to a doctor-patient relationship regarding sexually transmitted diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control, sexually transmitted diseases reached an all-time high in the U.S. in 2018. Dr. Alicia Nobles and Dr. John W. Ayers, who led the study at UC San Diego also noticed an increase in patients at its STD clinic. However, according to CDC statistics, they expected to see more. “We should be seeing more. Shame or a lack of access means many are missing an opportunity to get professional, life-saving help,” Dr. Davey Smith, study coauthor and Chief of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UC San Diego, told JAMA. 

What’s Driving the Increase in STDs, and What Does the Internet Have to Do With It?

According to the CDC, data suggests that there are quite a few factors contributing to the increase in STDs. The CDC suggests a number of reasons for this, including clinic closures due to budget cuts, reduction of staff members at existing clinics, poverty, stigma, and housing access, among other things. There also has been reported decreased condom use, according to the CDC.

This new suggests people are turning to the internet, specifically Reddit, to diagnose their STDs. Reddit is a social media site that collects about 330 million active users, and is the sixth most visited website in the United States. Essentially, Reddit is organized into chat rooms that are all centered around specific topics, whether it be health, gaming, relationships… anything you need advice on. There is a specific page that was founded by the Reddit team for posts specifically about STDs, titled “r/STD.” Among all posts made to r/STD, this JAMA study found that 58 percent of them were requesting diagnoses for their STD, and 31 percent even included a picture. Eighty-seven percent of those posts receive a reply from other internet strangers lurking on the page.

Why Experts Think People are Turning to the Internet to Diagnose Their STDs

Making doctor’s appointments can be a pretty time-consuming process. Not only do you typically have to wait to get an appointment in the first place, but then there’s also usually a wait once you get there. Dr. Ayers, one of the co-authors of the JAMA study, suggested that crowd-diagnoses may becoming popular because internet users are willing to respond and help. According to that same study, 79 percent of the inquiries on Reddit were answered in less than a day — which beats any doctor’s office wait time. 

Fast doesn’t always mean accurate, however. Most of the diagnoses provided on this page are obviously not clinician-approved. In one specific case reported in the JAMA study, a patient received an HIV diagnosis from a doctor, but turned to Reddit in an attempt to be convinced that their doctor was wrong about the diagnosis. When responding to the study, Dr. Ayers said people with life-altering health information often want to delude themselves, and one big way people do that is through social media. These cases of misdiagnosis can spread faulty information to others who believe they have similar issues on the site as well, causing a ripple effect and making the problem worse. 

But this study may serve as an eye-opener for doctors about the way their patients are using social media. These shocking statistics may motivate doctors to incorporate social media into their practice when working with patients, and help doctors understand what sort of evidence-based resources are needed, based off of the crowdsourcing requests for medical help. It may also serve as a guide for doctors on how to approach medical care with in-office patients. As Dr. Nobles told JAMA, “There is tremendous potential to leverage this phenomena to substantially improve public health.”  

You and Your Doctor Should Have a Full-Disclosure Relationship, Even Beyond Your Sexual Health

Let’s just come right out and say it: doctors appointments are uncomfortable and nobody really likes them. However, they are absolutely crucial for keeping your overall health in check, and having a doctor you trust can make a huge difference in your quality of care. Even beyond sexual health, another study published by JAMA in August 2019 found that 40 to 47.5 percent of participants did not tell their doctors about serious medical issues, specifically sexual assault, suicidal threats and depresssion, or abuse (to name a few.) Up to 47.5 percent of participants who had experienced a threat (specifically, depression, suicidality, abuse, or sexual assault) withheld at least one of the threats from their physician. Out of those participants who withheld information, over 70 percent admitted that they didn’t confide in their doctors about these sensitive issues because they were embarrassed. Many others were afraid they would be judged by their doctor. 

Dr. Oz suggests that one of the best ways to avoid this issue is to find a doctor that you feel comfortable seeing. It’s important to keep in mind that your doctor is there to help and provide you with the best care in order to treat any issues you may be facing, and that they are not there to judge or lecture you. According to Dr. Oz, there is nothing wrong with switching doctors until you find one you feel fully comfortable with — but how do you go about finding the right doctor for you?

First, ask your family and friends for recommendations. If none of their suggestions are within your network, or you go through the gamut and can’t seem to make a connection with any of them, try asking your insurance network for recommendations. If you don’t have insurance, Healthcare.gov has a tool to help you find healthcare recommendations for reasonable prices in your area. 

Maintaining an honest relationship with your doctor can lead to life-changing differences, especially in regards to your sexual health. Although it can feel more comfortable to consult Dr. Google with any and all medical questions, fast answers from the internet do not always necessarily yield accurate answers. The only way you can get true medical advice about STDs, or any health issue, is to seek advice from a real clinician or doctor, because chances are, your average Joe on r/STD doesn’t really know anything about medical advice in the first place.

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Article written by Madeline Merinuk