Self Diagnosis via Internet - A dangerous game

From traditional home remedies to searching the net for modern medicine, there has been a major lateral shift in the self-diagnosis and self-cure adopted by patients. Abundant healthcare marketing and medical advertising on the Internet has also spurred the rise of self-medication amongst people.

In addition, every healthcare digital marketing agency handling digital marketing for doctors and digital marketing for hospitals aims for better ranking on Google search, thereby making medical information easier to seek on Google search engines.

The digital media is looked upon as a tool by the millennial and gen-z’s who wants immediate material on their medical condition before visiting a physician/medical expert. Approximately, 49 percent of the Internet users using the digital media platform, self diagnose the medical condition as a minor ailment reading up treatment options and medicines to treat the ailment themselves.

Also, the increasing costs of medicines, high doctor fees, unavailability of health insurance, long waiting periods at clinics and hospitals and failing public health systems are veering people towards the internet for a search to find a quick cure on their medical condition. This being detrimental in most cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) insists on patient awareness for responsible self-medication as a part of self-care, which is being acknowledged as an integral part of primary healthcare. In India, further aggravating this situation, is the fact that Over-The-Counter (OTC) drugs are easily available to the Internet self-proclaimed doctors without a proper prescription from a healthcare specialist. OTC guidelines still miss strict norms and are found to have loopholes.

What has urged the Indians in recent times to resort to this dangerous self-diagnosis and self-medication?

1. Easy accessibility to the internet: After the launch of Reliance Jio in September 2016, offering free/low-cost data packages, mobile usage has grown exponentially in the urban areas. Even in rural areas, Internet penetration is over 30%. So surfing the net for a cure is easier than ever before.

2. The high cost of medication: The Supreme Court has held healthcare to be a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution. However, allocation of funds to primary healthcare centers is grossly inadequate and unavailable to 70% of the population in rural India. Also, doctor fees in urban areas are on the higher side.

3. Limited government healthcare facilities: Preventive, primary and some secondary free treatment provided by the government is not sufficient for the growing population of India. Public spending on health, 0.94% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is amongst the lowest in the world.

4. Doctor-patient ratio: The doctor-patient ratio in India is less than the WHO prescribed limit of 1:1000. It is currently around 1:11,082 which is the reason for long waiting periods to receive timely medical attention.

5. Easy accessibility to Over-the-Counter (OTC) drugs: Self-medication in India has doubled from 23 percent in 2006 to around 48% in 2018, with easily available Over-the-Counter (OTC) drugs mostly as a cure for acidity, constipation, headaches, cold, cough, and fevers. Even vitamins are widely purchased over-the-counter.

6. Poor coverage of health insurance: Healthcare insurance in most cases does not take into account outpatient treatment. As a result, private expenditure on health in India is close to 78%. Health insurance is also not able to penetrate the 90% of the workforce in the unorganized sector like agricultural laborers, unskilled labor, construction laborers, artisans etc who do not have a regular and assured source of income.

7. Not taking the illness seriously: A lot of patients do not take their illness/medical condition seriously. They think it is easily curable with a little help from the Internet not knowing the gravity of the medical condition until it is too late.

8. Stigma to the medical condition: In rural areas mainly people prefer to live with medical conditions or approach witch doctors or now even surf the internet for medical conditions like vitiligo, TB, cancerous lumps, sexually transmitted diseases (STD) to avoid the stigma.

9. Less trust in the medical system: Often an educated person believes visits to a doctor are prolonged by numerous tests. Thereby, seeking a quick cure, off the Internet to avoid frequent visits to the doctor.

10. Lack of time to visit the doctor: In nuclear families with both husband and wife working, if one of them falls ill he/or she or even the partner will first try to self medicate. Pressures at work leave little time for doctor visits. At times like this people turn to the Internet for assistance.

Recent statistics indicate, more than one-third did a web search specifically to self-diagnose their own or someone else’s medical condition. Of these, 35% didn’t follow up with a medical professional for an opinion on the matter. Self-medication backed by Internet medical searches is accomplished as a first-line option in most types of illness, which has led to the widespread concern over the irrationality of drug use. The prevalence of such practices is alarmingly high in developing countries like India, where doctors and medicines are not easily available to the masses.

Unchecked medication can adversely affect patient medical condition even aggravating it further. There also arises the problem of drug-interactions and antibiotic resistance due to lack of guidance from a qualified practitioner who could have mitigated and prevented such instances with his clinical expertise. Many studies have concluded that people, who tend to self-medicate to save money, may land up paying much more as a result of the delay in proper diagnosis and therapy. In the light of these incidences, WHO has emphasized the need to regulate such practices and need to educate the public on the aspects of self-medication.

On the bright side, the doctor-patient relationship can benefit from Internet health searches because the patient is more informed and therefore better able to communicate with the doctor. Also search engine results have a significant effect on people’s ability to make good treatment choices finding the best doctor/hospital/health care facility available close to their homes or even best medical aid overseas.

One only needs to remember, finding incorrect or insufficient medical information on the Internet can be more harmful leading to medical complications. Thereby, people shouldn’t expect a website to replace their physician.

Healthcare digital marketing comes with morals and ethics. Thereby, it is important for healthcare advertising agencies to pay heed to what they include on their or their client’s healthcare websites while promoting medical marketing or pharmaceutical marketing. The media agency should be well aware of the medical fraternity. If they have a Medical practitioner /Doctor onboard, it will be an added advantage. A responsible advertising agency/ top digital agencies will not design a social media campaign which restricts to selling a medicine/medical product alone but will also include symptoms, side effects, feedback, comments, risks of self-medication etc to alert the user and help him make an informed choice.

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