Doctors Beg: Please Don’t Ask the Internet to Diagnose Your STI


Googling your symptoms is one way to self-diagnose an ailment (if it doesn’t scare you in the process), but the people of the internet appear to be taking more drastic steps to find out whether they need to seek treatment for certain health concerns. 

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association peeked inside the growing internet health trend of crowdsourcing diagnoses. Looking into the subreddit thread ‘r/STD’, the researchers noted the number of STI enquiries since November 2018 had more than doubled.

Of all posts housed on the thread, 58% requested a crowd-diagnosis, and of those, 31% included an image of the physical signs. One in five posters requesting crowd-diagnosis did so to obtain a second opinion after an official diagnosis from a doctor. 

As to why people prefer to ask the internet for an answer to their genital woes than seek out medical advice? Well, it’s possible it all came down to timing and the desire for a faster answer. 

Securing an appointment with a GP can take time, but a response from strangers on the internet? Almost instant. According to the data collected, 87% of all posts requesting a crowd-diagnosis received at least one reply, within the average timeframe being 3.04 hours. For 79% of requests, an internet diagnosis was given in less than one day. 

std medication
One Reddit user asked for crowd-diagnosis to get a second opinion after being diagnosed with HIV.

What’s wrong with seeking a crowd-diagnosis?

According to Dr Alex Polyakov, Clinical Director for Melbourne IVF at Royal Women’s Hospital, just about everything. Not only is posting private medical information to the internet a horrible idea — even under a vague username — but it’s more than likely the ‘diagnosis’ received will be wildly inaccurate. 

“There are two separate areas of concern that are related to crowd-diagnosis. Firstly one asks people who are not qualified to evaluate symptoms and signs to provide an opinion on the diagnosis.

“It is clear that the accuracy of such a diagnosis is highly questionable. Furthermore, any treatment that may be recommended under those circumstances may not be correct, may be harmful and may result in delayed accurate diagnosis of a potentially serious medical condition, putting the person in question and all his or her sexual partners at risk of further harm.

“The second concern is related to privacy. Medical information is highly sensitive and especially so in the area of sexual and reproductive health. There is potential for misuse with significant short and long term consequences which should not be underestimated. 

“Therefore providing any personal and medical information to strangers over the internet could result in significant reputational as well as other types of damage which cannot be easily rectified.”

Free advice

Here’s some free advice on quickly diagnosing STIs that doesn’t involve posting a dick pic on the world wide web, and from a reputable medical professional, too. 

“If people are concerned about any aspect of their health, including a possible STI, it is always prudent to see a qualified medical practitioner for appropriate evaluation and treatment,” says Polyakov. 

“In most large urban centres in Australia there are dedicated STI clinics which provide appropriate evaluation, treatment, and follow -up of suspected STIs. These clinics usually offer the same day appointments and rapid diagnosis.”