Why we don’t answer medical questions online.
Why it’s bad for you:
- We could be anyone; this is the internet, after all. You believe that anonymous internet medipeeps are doctors, but they may not be. If you don’t know someone’s name and number, can you really trust them with your health? It’s risky to trust information from unnamed and unverified sources.And that includes us!
- You also don’t know if we have any undeclared interest in particular treatments. I might be telling you to take drug A because I’m actually working for said company.
- Many medblrs are still medical students or very junior staff. Which means that although we know a lot about many things, we are by no means qualified to take on our own patients and offer health advice without supervision in our day job. And if we can’t do something in real life, we’re not able to do it online either.
- We don’t get anywhere near enough information to make a decision in most anonymous health-related asks. But we can’t bring you back to ask for more information.
- When you see your healthcare provider, a lot of things happen. They take a detailed history, including asking lots of questions about things you may not have considered to be related to your problem. It’s much harder for us to ask all the right questions if you send an anonymous ask.
- They then they examine any body system they think is relevant. This is sometimes enough (for the kind of things we see the GP about), but often they will need to order some blood tests and occasionally further investigations. There is a lot of information we can only get through seeing and testing you.
- If your situation is complicated, you’ll still need to see a doctor in real life, who can do the right tests and refer you to the right speciality.And without all of the above, there is a very real chance that we may miss something that shouldn’t be missed.
- Sometimes the only way you can diagnose something serious is with a very thorough history and examination, and the right investigations. A history may make you suspect something serious, but it never confirms it.
- If we reassure you that you’re OK because we don’ know the whole story, you will probably put off going to the doctor, where otherwise you may well have decided to attend. This may mean that you get diagnosed and treated later. Which could have serious consequences.
- Some topics require asking a specialist in that field, and even a trained doctor in another field may not be very helpful. A medical student or a nurse aren’t the same as a cardiologist, who is not the same as an orthopaedic surgeon.
- Your health is important, and your concerns are real. Therefore you deserve to have the full MOT if you are seriously worried about your body, not just some anonymous person reading a few lines and telling you you’re probably OK (but should go to the doctor anyway). You are not ‘bothering the doctors’ if you get yourself checked out.
Why it’s bad for us Medblrs:
- By answering a medical question, you’re asking us to take a certain level of responsibility for you. Both ethically and legally.
- If we mistakenly told you your symptoms weren’t serious, but they actually were and and something bad happened to you, we would blame ourselves. Believe me medics blame themselves a lot.
- We’re under strict legal frameworks of what we can and can’t do. And most frameworks would suggest that taking responsibility for strangers on the basis of hastily written asks would be a bad idea for all involved.
- You could sue us because something bad happened to you, even if you neglected to metion loads of relevant symptoms. You probably wouldn’t, but there are lots of people who sue for all sorts of reasons and if we answered enough questions, we’d probably be sued eventually.
- Bearing in mind that we don’t have to answer asks as part of our degree or job, we’d be on a shaky footing legally when it came to defending our actions. Most of us are not legally covered for it.
- As students or juniors, we don’t take our own patients. We’re not allowed to take responsibility for the treatment of patients in different departments or under different teams, let alone random anonymous strangers online.
- Some of us struggle with depresison and anxiety, and the stress of taking on resonsibility for someone’s health and possibly life outside of the legal framework we are comfortable working in can be triggering.
- Nobody is obligated to work for free; and anyone with experience and training has spent a lot of time and money to get there. Answering medical questions looks suspiciously like work for free. There is a difference between someone volunteering to work for free and free work being foisted on them.
- When we work in hospital, it’s as part of a team. We have seniors we can double-check with when we’re out of my depth or dealing with something we haven’t seen before.
- But online we can’t exactly ask our seniors or tutors ‘This random person on Tumblr gave me an incomplete history, but can you advise?’ because they wouldn’t take responsibilty for someone who is not their patient. And that would leave us with nobody to turn to if we had questions. Which would mean worse advise for you.
- GPs see patients alone, but they’ve had years of training on how to diagnose serious things out in the community, and when tto refer to hospital. They still refer to hospital a lot, because even they can’t find everything out by themselves.
I’m not against senior clinicians (like some of our medblrs) choosing to answer health-related asks; Anyone who is a fully trained clinician to a level deemed competent to take their on patients has every right to use their expertise in their field as they see fit. When done right, it can be useful.
But I feel it can be difficult for junior medblrs to reply to asks, and I’m worried that there’s a pressure for many of them to answer asks that they don’t feel is within their competencies at this point in time. None of you have to answer a single clinical question that relates to the asker’s health; you have a right to say that you are not yet comfortable, or trained, to do it.
This is not about specific medblrs or specific asks; please don’t feel that you’ve done anything wrong if you’ve asked or answered such a question. I just wanted to make clear that if someone feels they shouldn’t, or can’t answer a question, it is not because they don’t care or don’t respect the person who asked it. If we tell you to see your doctor, we’re not trying to be flippant or lazy.
(Edited the last paragraph for clarification)