People Are Using Reddit, Not Doctors, To Diagnose Their STIs

Thousands of people are turning to strangers online instead of their doctors when facing a sexually transmitted infection -- but experts say that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The phenomenon of people using 'Dr Google' instead of visiting their local general practitioner isn't new.

Through either lack of access, lack of time, geographical isolation, laziness or a combination of the above, doctors "take it for granted that the public is relying on Dr Google for all of their health concerns,” said Dr Alicia Nobles, of the University of California San Diego's Department of Medicine.

But a new research paper, led by Nobles and UC epidemiologist Dr John Ayers, has found some are turning to a different source for their health advice.

"The public is increasingly turning to strangers on social media to obtain a 'crowd-diagnosis' for STDs, even posting pictures of their symptoms and sometimes to overrule a doctor’s diagnosis," the academics said.

People are turning to the internet for health advice. Image: Getty

Reddit, the popular message board, is among the world's most popular websites. It's also a surprising hub for those worried about sexually transmitted infections.

One of the site's 'subreddits', or topics, is called r/STD. Its purpose is outlined as "share your stories, concerns and questions" about "anything and everything STD-related." Recent questions on the forum include 'anyone think this looks like HPV?', 'is this herpes?' and 'tiny dot on shaft of penis, please help identify'.

The subreddit has more than 10,000 members, and was the forum the UC San Diego-led study focused on for its research into 'crowd-diagnosis'.

Analysing a sample of the nearly 17,000 posts on r/STD between November 2010 and February 2019, the study looked at how users requested and supplied health advice.

Users on r/STD ask about herpes, warts and HPV. Image: Getty

The research found 58 percent of posts on r/STD "were explicitly requesting a crowd-diagnosis", with 31 percent including a picture of the symptoms experienced.

Some posts got replies within one minute of publication, with 80 percent answered within a day.

The study's authors said it was important to understand how and why people turned to social media for medical help, so trained professionals could cut off the spread of incorrect or harmful advice.

The study recommended health professionals could work closer with social media. Image: Getty

One-fifth of people asking for help on r/STD said they were seeking advice after already being diagnosed by a doctor -- asking for a second opinion from strangers online.

"On one occasion a patient had received an HIV diagnosis but turned to a crowd-diagnosis to be convinced the doctor was wrong," Ayers said.

"People when faced with life-altering information often want to delude themselves and in some cases, they are finding it on social media."

The report concluded health professionals could partner with social media platforms "to promote the potential benefits of crowd-diagnosis while suppressing potential harms". This was suggested to include "having trained professionals respond to posts to better diagnose and make referrals to healthcare centres."

Some people turned to Reddit for a second opinion after getting a diagnosis from their doctor. Image: Getty.

"There are problems with crowd-diagnoses as they exist, but there is tremendous potential to leverage this phenomenon to substantially improve public health," Nobles said.

Dr Daniel Demant, epidemiologist and director of studies for public health at the University of Technology Sydney, said experts were still pondering how to deal with the 'Dr Google' trend. He said it was difficult to quantify how widespread the trend is, but he is aware of many Aussies using the internet to diagnose their issues.

"I understand why people may feel uncomfortable talking about their sexual health, but they have to understand doctors do that every day," Demant, who wasn't involved in the UC study, told 10 daily.

It's not necessarily bad that people are using social media for health advice, experts said. Image: Getty

He said using online tools as a first port of call could be useful, giving people important initial information, but urged Australians to make use of plentiful -- often free -- sexual health resources.

"In most Australian states, state-organised sexual health services are available for free, regardless of Medicare status, and most also offer services anonymously."