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Andrew Frost asks the question: is everyone a citizen doctor?


I’d like to start by asking you a question. Imagine you’ve just woken up with a tickly cough and a sore throat. What do you do?

Slight generalisation here, but you’ll no doubt do one of the following?

1)      You’ll take a cough medicine (or something similar) and get on with your day

2)      You’ll immediately call the doctors and ask for an appointment

3)      You’ll head straight to Google and search for a diagnosis and a subsequent cure

If you’re being honest, does the third option sound familiar? I know I’ve directed myself to the internet on plenty of occasions. In doing so I have unwittingly become what I like to call a “citizen doctor” – someone without an appropriate medical qualification but who diagnoses as a doctor.

It’s no secret that the internet’s arrival has revolutionised every major industry, and healthcare is definitely one that has been affected more than most. In the past, it was understandably quite a closed sector in the sense that only qualified personnel had access to medical information. Anyone possessing an internet connection today, though, has the potential to read about the latest diseases sweeping across the nation.

So has the internet been a good thing for the industry or has it actually caused more harm than good?

Self-diagnosis

A new report, which I found through the BBC’s website, suggested that social media has fuelled the rise in complaints made against doctors over the last few years. However the research, commissioned by a team at Plymouth University, interestingly found that there was no evidence of falling standards in the profession. Instead, it said that patients are now “better informed about their health” and as such now expect a higher standard of service from doctors.

The internet has provided society with a platform to discuss their problems with others to help formulate their own diagnoses. In theory, the improved access to information should mean that the number of patients visiting surgeries is reduced; however the reality is very different.

It doesn’t take an IT genius to realise that a large proportion of the websites we consult are actually giving out inaccurate information, which is potentially extremely dangerous. Admittedly, there are plenty of reputable sources, but on the whole, the rise in non-official health websites is making people more paranoid about their “illness”, increasing the strain on healthcare organisations.

Social media

There are obvious benefits to healthcare’s relationship with the internet, though. Social media, for example, has opened up several opportunities to significantly improve patient interaction. Trusted healthcare personnel are slowly embracing micro-blogging sites like Twitter to share guidance and advice. In a world where time is of the essence, and people sadly can’t find the time to visit the doctors, social media can offer trusted advice that can be accessed instantaneously by anyone.

However, discussing health issues in an open forum is potentially dangerous, so doctors must be wary they don’t cross the line or breach patient confidentiality. Finding the balance is pivotal to any successful strategy.

Answering the question!

As with every other major sector, the introduction of the internet has brought with it both positives and negatives. Trust is undoubtedly an issue which will continue to rage on for as long as there are commercially-driven websites out there offering poor health advice.

So has the internet been a good thing for the industry? That’s a difficult one. I’ll let you decide!

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