I’ve been carrying a bit of an injury since the Great North Run, and I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to injuries. I’ve only managed two 6k training sessions since the big race and both times I’ve been struck down half way round by a debilitating pain on the outside of my left knee, making it back to the house by jogging/hobbling and wincing in discomfort with every stride. Was this still half marathon fatigue? I didn’t think so. Both times it has happened I started out strongly before the pain kicked in, and it felt better after a couple of days’ rest. Yet somehow I still felt as if it would happen again. Clearly I needed some advice.
Did I make an appointment with my GP? Go to the walk-in centre? Consult a physiotherapist?
No. I asked Twitter.
The way in which we access healthcare has changed dramatically in recent years. The never-ending expansion of online services and the ubiquitous presence of social media in our lives has meant that it is easier than ever to access information instantly at the click of a mouse. Why wait three days for an appointment at your doctor’s surgery when you can go on the NHS Choices website and diagnose yourself in two minutes? Even better, why not download the NHS Health and Symptom Checker app and relieve that paranoia about your stomach pain or lingering cough with the scroll of a smartphone?
In my case, I had a wealth of fellow runners at my disposal via my Twitter account, and a quick Tweet of my complaint was enough to get an inbox full of responses suggesting what it could be. My crowdsourcing threw up possible diagnoses ranging from tight quads to the exciting-sounding iliotibial band syndrome; I Googled the latter and confidently concluded to myself that it was the correct diagnosis, all without any input of actual medical expertise. Those offering advice could only speak from their own experience, and could only comment on my brief description of the pain, yet I picked one of the options that sounded about right and ‘made it fit’ to my symptoms. Have I got it right or should I see a physio, as many people probably quite rightly advised me to do? Could our demand for immediate answers do more harm than good?
The good that can be done with modern technology in healthcare is undeniable. From remote patient monitoring to robotic surgery, the benefits to patients and improvements in outcomes are clear. Well designed IT systems make the day-to-day job of the health professional so much easier and brilliantly clever digital tools can help patients living with long term conditions self-manage their treatment. Easy-to-access online platforms are an important resource for engaging social groups which are hard to reach by conventional face-to-face means, notably young people who may avoid seeing a doctor. A range of service provision also provides choice to patients, enabling them to access healthcare in a manner and time of their choosing (an issue highlighted last week with the news of York Hospital putting an end to their face-to-face antenatal classes and providing all their information for pregnant mums online – questionably reducing the choices available to their service users).
When it comes to diagnosing our ailments in the first place, however, all the Internet can do is offer a best guess. NHS Choices can offer some self-help treatments for minor conditions which save valuable time and resources for GP surgeries, but sometimes the most appropriate course of action is still the good old-fashioned ‘Doctor, Doctor’ scenario, and good online services will always direct people to primary or secondary care if recommended. A website can’t examine you, listen to your chest, or pick up on your subtle physical cues. A symptom checker won’t understand why you aren’t sleeping, how much pressure you’re under, or that you might just need someone to talk to. The amazing technological advances that have revolutionised modern healthcare often miss out one crucial element – a little humanity.
Of course, if you’ve just got a dodgy knee, there are probably some runners on Twitter who know exactly what they’re talking about.
Learn more about how technology can benefit healthcare by checking out these interesting websites: