The Dangers of Self-diagnosing
Recently, a patient gave themselves a bit of a scare. Without going into too much detail, it was a case of cyberchondria due to online DIY dental diagnosing and they wanted us to share their story.
We are big on self-advocating and taking ownership of your medical and dental health or the lack there of, but we have had more than our share of patients misdiagnosing themselves or using home remedies as advised online.
Such is the paradox of access to information. Amid the online scholarly journals and other credible medical publications is a plethora of well-intentioned sites with inaccurate or misleading information. Bolstering the claims and lending credibility to these sites are testimonies and/or links to other web pages that may or may not contain other unreliable recommendations.
The Well-Connected Patient
The explosion of both credible and incredible online information can be both empowering and dangerous to the well-connected patient looking to enlighten themselves. We find ourselves spending more and more time dispelling incredible claims while warning of the hazards of others. We are also facing a growing number of skeptical people – people who are dubious of our advice rather than these online claims.
So, who’s judgment do you turn to for sound dental advice?
Well, nothing convinces like the truth. Eventually, patients who have tried home remedies, come into our office seeking redress while we attempt to mitigate the damage. The price people pay for DIY dentistry can range from the unnecessary scare that misdiagnosing can bring to the pain and infection that often results from delayed treatment.
Back to our patient…
We will use some licence here to change a bit of the facts about the aforementioned case to preserve patient anonymity, but it will still convey our message about being cautious about online information. This patient had mistakenly thought that their tooth was infected. When, after a week of oil pulling did not alleviate her symptoms, she made a quick trip to us. A quick examination revealed that a popcorn kernel stuck between her teeth was the source of her badly swollen gum. The offending food item was removed and we are glad to say that, equipped with some home care information, she was quickly on her way back to a healthy smile.
“When in doubt use greater scrutiny”
What to Consider:
Source – Who is the source of the information? Is the site you are gathering information from using second hand information? Who is the person behind the information? Are they selling a product, viewpoint or belief? Being able to distinguish between a reliable consumer health website with trusted and timely content and one that is self promoting, has a hidden agenda or offering pseudoscientific claims is critical when evaluating credibility. A reliable website identifies the author or source of the information so you can follow up on their credentials and reputation to determine if they have the relevant education, training, or experience that gives them the authority to speak on the matters being presented and that facts are consistent with other authoritative websites.
Date – Content is continually being created and revised, but some websites do not update their information so it’s data may be outdated. Even information from a year ago can be expired. Are you skillful enough to evaluate the how timely the online medical information is? That is, when was it created and how much of the information is still relevant and of value today? FYI: Some websites pages automatically update to the present date, so be careful and ensure that there is a way to find out the correct creation date of the information.
Accuracy – What criteria do you use to determine the validity of a website and it’s contents? What evidence is being offered to support the claims of the website? Anyone can place a testimonial on the site or quote what seems like a reliable source. Many honest, well intentioned people mistaking offer false information. With so much information available, we must be prepared to apply a very high level of scrutiny when determining the legitimacy of a site.
Severity – How severe are your signs and symptoms? Oftentimes, it can be difficult to tell. We recommend that any dental issue that needs immediate attention to prevent tooth loss, relieve ongoing pain, stop bleeding or infection or is the result of trauma/injury should be considered a dental emergency. Many people do not realize that a dental infection can be life-threatening and should have immediate medical attention.
Intention – Consider why you are turning to online sources of information. Do you want authoritative facts or a different viewpoint? Are you looking for another opinion? Perhaps you are exploring non-traditional medicine. We encourage our patients to use the internet for general wellness to become better informed about their health. If something needs repair, is diseased, increasing in pain, swollen, infected or needs critical or emergency attention then you must let your healthcare provider evaluate the issue. Be aware when you try to diagnosis and treat yourself. Understand that health care providers look at your overall signs and symptoms and apply their years of clinical experience and knowledge before making a judgment call and recommending treatment.
Self Advocacy – Part of self advocacy is learning how to get the information you need to become better informed. What will you do with the information? Once you feel you are equipped with some reliable, useful information you need to make a decision about your next move and take ownership of your decisions. It is your right to problem solve yourself, however, it is important to be objective and open enough to realize when you need the help of a professional. When it comes to teeth, all too often, choosing to opt out of professional dental care leads to further damage, more complicated and costly treatment or eventual loss of teeth. Take the case of healing one’s own cavities. It may surprise you that you CAN heal a cavity, but there are several critical factors involved. Unfortunately, we have yet to see a case of self cavity healing that has not eventually progressed into very deep cavities, many with nerve damage requiring root canals or extraction.
Appearance – Anyone can put up a professional looking medical information site that quotes all kinds of seemingly reliable sources. Do not let appearances deceive you. If the information you want is important to you, dig deeper, think critically. If you dental health is at risk, call your dentist.
Reality Check – Use your logic. Does the information sound too good to be true? If it’s hard to believe, it likely is. Are broad, generalizations being made while sweeping aside other important details? Given your past experiences, how much of what is being presented is probable? Do you have a sense that perhaps facts are being distorted or are one-sided?
Remember: The internet is so accommodating that it let’s anyone
contribute material for public consumption. If you are searching
for reliable and accurate information then it’s up to you to determine
the validity and accuracy of the content or ask someone who can.
What concerns us is the people who use the Internet to identify their dental problems by matching their symptoms to a likely cause then using the home remedy suggested – whether it’s a coconut oil cure for their infected tooth, an online diet for their cavities or a homemade glue for their loose crown. Unfortunately, dentists have to then manage the patient’s disappointment when their well-intended misadventure causes further dental complications and treatment costs to arise.
It’s true that online self-diagnosis and medical research can be beneficial and even successful when approached responsibly and judiciously. Online searches have saved lives. If what you learn from your online searches can help make positive changes in your life, like eating healthier, exercising, getting more sleep or managing your stress, then that is a great step forward. If an online search about unusual pain makes you call us faster then you’re likely to save a tooth or prevent a condition from spreading.
We believe that well informed patients have better dental experiences. At Your Smile Dental Care we encourage our patients to educate themselves as much as possible using the wealth of reliable health information that can be found online. In doing so, they can be more involved in their treatment options and proceed with their choices confidently.
Yours in Better Dental Health,