- Thousands of people post in an online health forum seeking a “crowd-diagnosis” of their sexually transmitted disease (STD).
- A new study found people have turned to Reddit for help getting an STD diagnosis.
- Experts say this isn’t a great idea, since other posters may not have a medical background or all the necessary information to give a definitive diagnosis.
- But there are online sites like CrowdMed where licensed medical professionals may help people who are worried about a possible STD.
First there was crowdfunding. Now there’s crowd-diagnosis, where people turn to strangers on social media to get a diagnosis — including for STDs.
This trend has been growing in popularity, but the authors of a new study say diagnosing STDs using social media can often be unreliable.
“Although crowd-diagnoses have the benefits of anonymity, speed and multiple opinions, many are wildly inaccurate,” study author Dr. Christopher Longhurst, professor of biomedical informatics at UC San Diego Health, said in a statement.
In the study, researchers from University of California, San Diego examined conversations on the social media website Reddit.
Reddit has a subreddit, or online forum, where people share “stories, concerns and questions” about “anything and everything STD-related.”
Researchers obtained all posts from the r/STD subreddit from 2010 to 2019 — almost 17,000 total. These were public posts with no information that could be used to identify the original posters.
From this, the researchers randomly selected 500 posts to see which ones were requests for help from other Reddit users in diagnosing an STD.
They also looked at whether the person had already seen a healthcare professional about the health concerns they had posted about.
In one example, a poster said they had received a diagnosis of genital warts but turned to Reddit for a second opinion.
Researchers found that 58 percent of the posts were requests for a crowd-diagnosis. Of those, 31 percent included an image of the person’s physical symptoms.
In addition, 20 percent of the people asking for a crowd-diagnosis were seeking a second opinion after seeing a healthcare professional for the same health concern.
The majority of posts received a reply, with more than three-quarters of those receiving an answer in less than 1 day. The average time for the first response was just over 3 hours.
The study was published online Nov. 5 in the journal JAMA.
Although the new study provides a snapshot of how people are seeking health information online, this research has some limitations.
Dr. Barbara Keber, chair of family medicine at Northwell Health’s Glen Cove Hospital in New York, points out that the researchers only looked at one social media platform.
STDs are also a condition that can cause “significant anxiety,” says Keber. This may drive people to sites like Reddit, where they can get an answer in a few hours or less.
Public interest in online health forums like Reddit comes as many STDs are on the rise. This includes syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with a particularly large increase in people 60 years or older.
There’s also a lot of information missing from the Reddit posts that could help health officials understand what’s going on.
“Like many social media studies, this study didn’t provide info on the location of the people posting about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on Reddit, whether they were being honest or if it was a hoax, how their actual STI risk compares to those not using Reddit, etc.,” said Sean Young, PhD, executive director of the UC Institute for Prediction Technology and a professor in the departments of informatics and emergency medicine at UC Irvine.
Other research shows that many Americans are turning to the internet for health-related information and to self-diagnose a medical condition. So, this is a trend that health professionals need to keep in mind.
“If they aren’t already, physicians should be aware of — and adapting their practice — around the fact that patients are using the internet to search for and gain information about STIs and health,” Young said.
One thing that drives people to online health forums is convenience. After all, try getting an answer from your doctor in just 3 hours.
But Keber says people need to be careful when using these types of resources.
“There is no way to know who is answering these questions and addressing the concerns of the people writing in this venue,” Keber said.
“I especially have concerns about [people] using this as a ‘second opinion’ following an office visit with a licensed professional,” she added.
Online forums like those on Reddit are peer groups, so people responding may not have any medical training.
This differs from online tools like CrowdMed, where licensed physicians, medical students, physician assistants, and other health professionals provide opinions.
In addition, Keber says because STDs are very private and personal conditions, people posting in an online forum may not be willing to share all the information a doctor would use to make a diagnosis.
If you think you might have an STD, it’s best to have it taken care of right away.
“If someone is unable to get in quickly with their own physician, the best way to be evaluated would be to seek care in a licensed urgent care facility where someone can be seen in a short time and by a licensed provider,” Keber said.
Young offers this additional advice for people who think they might have an STD:
- Stop having sex until you see your regular doctor or visit a walk-in clinic.
- If you’re still having sex, notify your sexual partner(s) and use a condom or a dental dam — correctly — and every time.
- When searching for health information online, visit reputable sites like the CDC, Mayo Clinic, and UC Irvine Health.
- Talk to a therapist if you’re worried about possibly having an STD, or are feeling stigmatized, ashamed, or sad as a result.