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Are smartphones encouraging self-diagnosis?

I’m going to start this post with a little disclaimer to save my own ass: if you’re ill, go see a doctor. Of course, sometimes we all have little aches and pains that we don’t want to bother our hard-working GPs with, and the temptation to get on the net and start Googling the answer is just too great. In fact, even when I do plan to a see a doctor, I don’t think I’ve ever not Googled first — just to set my mind at ease first. Given how much easier it is to type in a few symptoms than to cross-reference these using a musty old tome, it’s easy to assume that the internet has been a big boon to hypochondriacs everywhere.

But what about smartphones? As well as allowing us to access the internet – so you can start searching your symptoms at a moment’s notice – there are plenty of apps out there that will help you on your way to self-diagnosis. This is different from just giving you the option of self-diagnosing; it’s pretty much actively promoting it. The New York Times recently published a piece pointing out that the iPhone already has attachable devices that measure blood sugar and monitor blood pressure.

In the article, Dr. Topol, a cardiologist, told the paper that many doctors are skeptical of self-diagnosing tools, saying that “Of course, the medical profession doesn’t like D.I.Y. anything. There are some really progressive digital doctors who are recognizing the opportunities here for better care and prevention, but most are resistant to change.”

Dr. Topol has a point; while self-diagnosis is great if it means more people get themselves to the doctor about their symptoms, a lot of people might misdiagnose and take the signs of a serious illness to be nothing more than a common cold.

Of course, what also matters is how accurate these apps are. An app available at the App Store, called the iStethoscope Pro, “turns your iPhone into a stethoscope, allowing you to listen to your heartbeat and see your heart waveform, or listen to other quiet sounds around you. As seen on TV around the world!” That’s their own description, by the way. Great! Might as well make your way around the neighbourhood diagnosing all of the sick and ill… but wait. The app itself also gives a little warning: “This app is intended to be used for entertainment purposes.” It’s also worth pointing out that users have unanimously given the app one-star reviews.

So what do we make of this? Well, your iPhone might go a little way in helping you play ‘doctors and nurses’ ever so slightly more realistically than you could do before, but other than that you’re best off seeing a real doctor. Not only is self-diagnosis likely to lead to misdiagnosis, but these smartphone apps are notoriously unreliable; you’ll know what I mean for yourself when your pulse is supposedly beating at 220 beats per minute while watching the telly. Yeah, EastEnders is pretty lively these days, but it’s not that gripping.