More people are turning to "Dr. Google," Reddit and other forms of social media for medical advice, increasingly seeking help and posting photos online of various ailments — including pictures of sexually transmitted diseases, according to new research published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Crowd-diagnosis, when people seek out medical diagnoses through social media, has increased dramatically in the past year, researchers said, and it appears to be replacing visits to physicians to receive proper care.
"Online someone can post a picture yet remain mostly anonymous," said Dr. Eric Leas, a professor at the University of California, San Diego involved with the research. "This can overcome some of the embarrassment that might come with going to ask a doctor."
STDs are at an all-time high and visits to clinics have risen, said Dr. Davey Smith, a study co-author and chief of infectious diseases and global public health at UC San Diego.
"But statistically we should be seeing more. Shame or a lack of access means many are missing an opportunity to get professional, life-saving help," he said in the report.
While many patients often turn to Dr. Google for health advice, researchers found that people are increasingly going to social media for help because "people also want a sense of connection," said Dr. Alicia Nobles, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego.
Researchers combed through a subsection of social media giant Reddit, called r/STD, that's dedicated to sexually transmitted diseases and has more than 10,000 members. After looking at posts from November 2010 through February 2019, they saw a significant spike in the section's posts since November 2018, with the number of posts nearly doubling in the past year, the researchers added.
Fifty-eight percent of all posts on r/STD were explicitly requesting help with a crowd-diagnosis, researchers said. Of that, 31% of the posts included a photo of symptoms for reference, they added.
People may feel more comfortable reaching out to strangers through a screen rather than an in-person visit, but doctors involved in the study warned of the implications.
"Social media was not built to deliver health care," Nobles, who co-led the study, said in an email. "Currently, we don't know if STDs, or other health issues, can be accurately diagnosed online, especially since people's requests vary in the information they provide."
A misdiagnosis could lead to people not receiving necessary treatment, which "could result in greater harm to themselves or passing an infection along to others," she added.
The rise in posts comes at the same time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia reached an all-time highs, though researchers couldn't say whether the surge in people seeking advice on Reddit was linked to the spread in disease.
"There is a public health imperative for correct diagnoses and proper treatment," Leas added.
People are drawn to the anonymity, since they don't have to interact with a doctor, and the convenience, Leas said. Nearly 90% of people received responses to their questions and most of those were within the day, he added.
"Although crowd-diagnoses have the benefits of anonymity, speed, and multiple opinions, many are wildly inaccurate," said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, UC San Diego Health professor and study co-author, in a press release.