Telehealth could supplement self-diagnosis as more young people go online for health information

The number of Americans who want technology to play a role in their healthcare is growing, as up to 64% of Americans use online health resources, and 40% use them to self-diagnose, according to a new survey conducted by the Atlantic and GlaxoSmithKline. Yet while 94% of those using online resources consider them important to their health, only 12% report contacting doctors via email or text message regarding a health question.

The Atlantic-GSK survey and others indicate that the group favoring online health information tends to skew younger.

According to a Pew telephone survey of 3,014 adults conducted between August and September 2012 and released in January, 47% of those aged 18 to 29 had looked online to diagnose a condition, compared with 43% of respondents aged 30-49, 29% of those aged 50-64 and 13% of those aged 65 and older. Overall, the survey found that 59% had looked online for health information in the past year, and 35% were "online diagnosers," meaning they had used the internet to figure out what condition they or another might have.

Meanwhile a study released Friday by Research2guidance found that the market for mobile health apps will reach $26 billion by 2017. 

At the same time, the percentage of those in the youngest cohort who had followed up with a medical professional was the same as those in the oldest (47%) compared with 55% of those in the 30-49 cohort and 58% of those in the 50-64 cohort. Nevertheless, doctors remained a primary source of information and support during serious health episodes, with 70% of respondents getting information, care and support from medical professionals.

This is where programs like Rite Aid's recently expanded NowClinic can be useful. According to the Atlantic-GSK study, younger people tend to place greater emphasis on removing face-to-face interaction with healthcare professionals. While NowClinic relies on a webcam connection - i.e. face-to-face interaction - it allows for remote consultation between the doctor and patient.

A 2011 study in Australia indicated that when it came to sexual health services, 85% of people aged 16 to 24 would prefer meeting a doctor in person, while 63% would prefer a telephone consultation and 29% would prefer a consultation via webcam. Use of webcams for consultations was favored more among men, respondents with same-sex partners and those with more than three sexual partners in the previous year. Concerns about the possiblity of consultations being recorded, saved and potentially searchable online were the main objections to webcam consultations. But the study concluded that despite the small number of respondents who would prefer consultations via webcam, they could benefit youth who would otherwise lack access to sexual health services, and they might be more palatable if they included guarantees of privacy.

As any doctor will say, it's unwise to try and self-diagnose, at least without consulting a qualified professional. Some news media have reported on "cyberchondria," in which patients go to doctors for an imaginary illness because they're convinced that a symptom such as a rash or cough is evidence of a serious illness, as well as doctors' frustration with it.

But it would be equally unwise to ignore the growing number of people who seek medical information online to try and figure out what's wrong with them. After all, according to the Pew study, 53% of online diagnosers had discussed what they found online with clinicians, and 41% had their self-diagnoses confirmed, but 35% had not visited a clinician to get a professional opinion.