09 Nov STD Patients Increasingly Seek Crowd Diagnosis
MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Alicia Nobles, PhD, MS
Department of Medicine
UC San Diego
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are at record-high rates according to the Centers for Disease Control. Between STDs being highly stigmatized infections and people lacking access to health care, people may elect to turn to social media to connect with others. This is precisely why social media sites are so popular – because they do allow for people to talk with others rapidly.
Reddit, a social media site that rivals Twitter with 330 million active users and is the 6th most visited website in the United States, is organized into online communities, many of which discuss health topics. We monitored all r/STD (www.reddit.com/r/STD/) posts, where users can find “anything and everything STD related,” from its inception in November 2010 through February 2019.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: Among posts more than half (58 percent) were explicitly requesting a crowd-diagnosis. A crowd-diagnosis is when the public seeks a diagnosis from strangers on social media. Among those approximately one-third (31 percent) included a picture of the symptoms. Almost all (87 percent) of the requests for crowd-diagnoses received a reply, many of which received multiple replies. The response time was fast; the median time for the first response was 3 hours with some posts receiving a reply in less than 1 minute. Additionally, we found that the use of r/STD is rapidly increasing, with the number of posts doubling since November 2018.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Crowd-diagnosis is likely appealing because users do not have to disclose their identity and one can receive a reply faster than you can see a physician in-person. Although crowd-diagnoses can be fast and anonymous, we cannot be certain of the accuracy of the diagnosis and whether people who need treatment actually receive it. A misdiagnosis could allow the continued spread of disease and may even have a ripple effect if others viewing the post use the information for a self-diagnosis.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: We recommend that health leaders be aware and respond to this discovery of crowd-diagnoses. First, future research could identify what conditions and types of information the public is willing to share on social media. This could help health experts build out evidence-based resources to match the needs of the public. Second, health leaders could partner with social media companies to ensure that health misinformation or mis-diagnoses are not spread. For example, experts could help moderate requests for crowd-diagnoses and serve to connect the public to professional health care.
In its current form, we don’t know the benefits or harms of crowd-diagnoses. However, we see tremendous potential to leverage this phenomena to substantially improve public health by partnering with social media sites that the public is already organically using outside of traditional brick-and-mortar healthcare.
Nobles AL, Leas EC, Althouse BM, et al. Requests for Diagnoses of Sexually Transmitted Diseases on a Social Media Platform. JAMA. 2019;322(17):1712–1713. doi: https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.14390
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