Study: Consumers turning to social media, internet searches for medical diagnoses

Crowd-diagnosis, or when a person uses social media to seek out a medical diagnosis, is a phenomenon increasingly spreading among the public, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

For the study, University of California San Diego researchers analyzed posts about sexually transmitted diseases on Reddit, a social media website organized into communities focused on specific topics. 

STDs are at an all-time high, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While clinical visits for STDs have increased, STD clinics should statistically be seeing more patients than what is currently noted, said study co-author Davey Smith, chief of infectious diseases and global health at UC San Diego, according to the news release.

To examine crowd-diagnosis, UC San Diego researchers monitored r/STD posts on Reddit, a community where users can post and share information about STDs, from the launch of r/STD in November 2010 through February 2019. During the time period, the use of r/STD rapidly increased, with the number of posts doubling since November 2018.

Of all the posts to r/STD, 58 percent were explicitly requesting a crowd-diagnosis, and among those, 31 percent included a picture of the symptoms. Further, 20 percent of crowd-diagnosis requests were made after the individual already obtained a physician-diagnosis. Eighty-seven percent of crowd-diagnoses requested received a reply, and the average time for the first response was within 3 hours of posting.

"Although crowd-diagnoses have the benefits of anonymity, speed, and multiple opinions, many are wildly inaccurate," said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, professor of biomedical informatics at UC San Diego Health and study coauthor.

Studying crowd-diagnoses can help providers identify what conditions and types of information the public is willing to share and use the information to build evidence-based resources to match those needs, Dr. Longhurst added.

Study authors concluded that while there are research opportunities within crowd-diagnosis, health leaders must respond to the increasing phenomena and construct ways to reduce the spread of false information and misdiagnosis.

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