Could the Internet hold the key to easing the burden on our overstretched health service by giving people the tools to diagnose and even treat themselves?
This winter, the Royal College of GPs (RCGPs) asked patients to adopt a three-step mantra before going to their GP, in order to relieve pressures on surgeries.
In addition to suggesting that people try and sort their health problems themselves, or by visiting a pharmacist, the RCGPs also recommended that people look up their symptoms online, using reputable websites.
However, in Tonight - Dr Google: Do DIY diagnoses work? Reporter Dr Oscar Duke found that in some cases, searching symptoms and buying medicines online could actually endanger people’s health.
Have you ever Googled your symptoms?
Turning to the internet for questions about our health is something many of us already do. In a Tonight survey of two thousand people across the UK, 95 per cent said they’d searched their symptoms online.
Many go through search engine Google, which handles trillions of searches each year. 1 in 20 of them are health-related.
While much of the information online is helpful, and a Google spokesperson told Tonight that the company ranks its search results by their trustworthiness and authority, there’s also concern that compulsive searching can have serious consequences.
Constantly checking your symptoms online is known as ‘cyberchondria’ - but it’s actually part of an officially recognised condition called ‘health anxiety’.
Around 1 in 16 people are thought to have had health anxiety at some stage in their lives, and experts say the number of people experiencing this condition has gone up thirty per cent in the last decade.
Tonight spoke with Hattie Gladwell, 22, who has suffered with health anxiety for the past two years. She says:
Hattie says: “There’s been times where I’ve noticed a pain in my leg and I will then convince myself it’s a blood clot. Another time I convinced myself it was a cancerous tumour in my leg, it sounds ridiculous saying it out loud now but at the time you manage to convince yourself.”
Professor Peter Tyrer, of Imperial College London, has studied health anxiety, and believes the web fuels it.
Health anxiety is estimated to cost the NHS up to £420m a year, through unnecessary GP and hospital appointments as well as medical tests.
A digital age for the NHS?
Despite concerns that the web could fuel health anxiety, the government is keen to embrace the internet.
By the end of this year (2018) the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants everyone to access GP appointments online, or through a smartphone or tablet.
A trial which allows patients to book GP appointments and view their medical history through an app is currently underway in Bexley in south east London.
However, the Royal College of GPs has told Tonight that patients are a long way off getting online consultations with doctors as they still lack the basic computer technology.
She added: “ I’d love to be able to offer online consulting to my patients, but if I haven’t got the basic infrastructure, I can’t do that.
Health Talk - www.healthtalk.org is a charity website that works with the University of Oxford to provide information about people's experiences of health and illness. The website covers more than 100 health conditions and is accredited by the Royal College of GPs and The NHS Information Standard.
Are GPs embracing digital technology? This research suggests not.
University of Oxford, Health Experiences Research Group
Dr Google: Do DIY Diagnosis Work? will be broadcast on ITV at 7:30pm on Thursday 18th January.