Reddit is the ‘wildly inaccurate’ doctor of choice for many STI diagnoses

5 Nov 2019204 Views

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Rather than waiting days for an STI diagnosis, people are turning to Reddit with potentially dangerous consequences.

With sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on the rise not only in Ireland, but in the US and elsewhere, the number of people seeking a diagnosis on what they may or may not have has also jumped.

While the established course of action is to consult a qualified medical professional with knowledge of STIs, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found ‘crowd diagnoses’ are surging on Reddit.

With approximately 330m people using the online forum each month, one of its many subsections (called subreddits) is entirely focused on the topic of STIs. At the time of writing, it has more than 10,000 members.

Researchers from UC San Diego monitored all posts on the subreddit between its inception in February 2010 to February 2019. Since November 2018, the number of posts on the subreddit has doubled. Over its nine years, 58pc of posts were trying to crowdsource a diagnosis, with 31pc including a picture of their symptoms.

Dr Eric Leas, one of the study’s co-authors, said “no one would expect that thousands of people would be willing to share pictures of their you-know-what on social media rather than seeing a trained physician”.

Furthermore, 87pc of crowd diagnoses received at least one reply, with a median response time of three hours and, in some cases, posts receiving a reply within one minute.

‘Fast doesn’t mean accurate’

Dr John W Ayers, another co-author the study, said that 79pc of the posts received responses, making it very appealing to embarrassed or concerned users.

“Try getting a doctor’s opinion in that time,” he said. “But fast doesn’t mean accurate.”

Worryingly for the researchers, 20pc of the posts were made after the user had seen a doctor, including one user who turned to Reddit after being told they were HIV positive. Many of the treatments offered were totally contradictory to a doctor’s recommendation. “Apple cider vinegar cures all according to the crowd on social media,” said Dr Alicia Nobles.

She warned that not only do crowd diagnoses potentially harm the person asking for advice, they may also “have a ripple effect for the millions who view the post and perceive they have a similar condition which they then wrongly self-diagnose”.

Understanding the world of crowd diagnoses is important, the researchers said, as it could help clinicians identify what conditions and what types of information the public is willing to share, and help them build evidence-based resources to match those needs.

“It is critically important that health leaders become aware of and respond to our discovery of crowd diagnoses,” Nobles said. “There are problems with crowd diagnoses as they exist, but there is tremendous potential to leverage this phenomena to substantially improve public health.”

Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com