A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research has revealed that people who self-diagnose have a higher tendency of believing they suffer from a serious illness because they concentrate on their symptoms instead of the likelihood of a certain disease. The finding has important implications for both public health professionals and consumers alike.

Dengfeng Yan and Jaideep Sengupta from Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology) remark:

“In today’s wired world, self-diagnosis via internet search is very common. Such symptom-matching exercises may lead consumers to overestimate the likelihood of getting a serious disease because they focus on their symptoms while ignoring the very low likelihood that their symptoms are related to any serious illness.”

Consumers have the tendency to view their own health in a worst-case scenario compared to the health of others, which they view in a calm, objective manner. For instance, if another person has indigestion, we tend to accurately view their ailment as that, yet if we suffer the same symptoms, we may panic and think it could be a heart attack.

In a consumer survey, the researchers asked participants to imagine that they or someone else was experiencing common symptoms like coughing, fever, nasal congestion and a headache. The participants were then asked to judge the likelihood that they or the other person had contracted either a regular flu or H1N1 (swine flu) or regular.

The researchers discovered that participants were a lot more accurate when they assessed other people’s symptoms compared with themselves, pointing out that they may take medical action that is not required and can actually harm them as they are more likely to misdiagnose themselves, which is also has a negative impact from a societal cost perspective.

The researchers conclude:

“One of the easiest ways to get rid of this bias is to see a real doctor instead of Dr. Google. A real doctor possesses much more knowledge and will take the prevalence of a disease into consideration because she is viewing the patient from a distance. This will prevent symptoms from exerting a disproportionate influence on the diagnosis.”

Written by Petra Rattue