Constant self-diagnosing risks testing the patience of your GP

Wherever you look, people are testing themselves for conditions that, a year-or-two ago, they had never heard of.

In the blink of an eye, it seems that self-diagnostics is the new yoga and wearable technology the new jewellery.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that the global health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have sparked the biggest healthcare revolution in a generation, with a massive growth in self-testing.

Until recently, there was a handful of tests available at your local high street pharmacy, most commonly to find out if you were pregnant or if you had a urinary tract infection.

Other than for that, the only people routinely testing themselves were those with specific conditions such as diabetes or HIV.

Now, it seems, that whatever you want to test for, there’s a diagnostic kit that can be bought online or at a chemist’s store.

Samples taken can either be processed at home, or sent to a laboratory for screening, diagnosis, monitoring, or to provide information about the risk of a disease.

Among the various things you can now test for at home are blood, iron, testosterone, diabetes (HbA1c) thyroid function, vitamins B9 & B12 and D, cholesterol, liver function and Omega-3.

You can screen for glucose, gluten and lactose intolerance, digestive problems, anaemia, and stomach ulcers, muscle type or fat DNA (to find out if you have a predisposition to obesity) and you can also check your skin, foot, and nail fungus DNA.

If you have a spare £6,742.80 lying around, you could even invest in a Portable Point of Care Testing Device which uses ‘cathodic electrochemiluminescence technology’ to test for a complete range of potential conditions.

What some people – mainly those selling the tests – are calling the ‘democratisation of healthcare,’ is seen by others as the opening-up of a whole new market in hypochondria, or what is now called ‘illness anxiety disorder.’

As a general principle, having more information is better than having less, but I’m sure we can all think of at least one person who doesn’t need any more encouragement to look for more things that might be wrong with them.

An inevitable consequence of the growth of home testing is a corresponding increase in primary care consultations.

For self-testing provides only a starting point for people to use the information they have gained to then seek professional advice and treatment.

Those who might, in the past, have struggled on regardless with an ache here or a grumble there, now have a data set to justify their complaints.

Where before we lived in blissful ignorance that we had an abnormal reading in our levels of vitamin B9, B12 or Omega-3, now we have a test kit with lines and markers to justify our conviction that we reside in the land of the unwell.

The ease with which we, as a population, have become familiar with PCR testing means that self-diagnostics is here to stay.

And the likelihood is that it will become more common and diversified because, crucially, employers and governments have accepted self-diagnostics as a useful tool in the healthcare continuum.

There are, of course, potential benefits for public health, with access to mass population data on particular diseases, as well as their speed of infection, down as far as postcode level.

The experience of the pandemic has given us the ability to track trends in disease movement and to proactively plan and respond to those illnesses as they occur.

It has also given us the skills needed to identify and isolate locations that are of high-risk, to minimise the potential impact of diseases on vulnerable groups and to slow their spread through testing and isolating infected people.

The availability of testing kits made in shops and supermarkets broke new ground in encouraging people not to use their local GP as a first port of call but to take matters into their own hands.

We are constantly told, though public health messaging, that prevention is better than cure, and monitoring aspects of our health will ensure any problems are identified and treated at an early stage.

But for all the benefits such tests provide, there is also a downside. What of the impact on public health services that are already stretched beyond breaking point?

We need self-diagnostics to result in fewer, not more, people approaching their GP for an appointment because they have an uncomfortable but non-critical ailment.

To achieve that, we need more and better education to teach people what is and is not worth worrying about.

Health anxiety is caused by people spending so much time fretting that they are ill, or about to be ill, that it starts to impact on their lives. It is related to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Symptoms can include checking your body for lumps, tingling or pain; frequently seeking reassurance from others that you’re not unwell, and worrying that a GP or medical tests might have missed something.

Anxiety itself can cause symptoms such as headaches or a racing heartbeat that many people often mistake for signs of illness.

As with everything, moderation is key to a happy and healthy life and there is a limited range of indicators that normal, otherwise healthy people should be concerned with. These include blood pressure, cholesterol, BMI, blood type, family history and allergies.

Keeping an eye on those and not worrying unduly about things that may or may not be wrong with you is better than obsessing over the results of self-diagnostic kits that will only test the patience of your GP.

Snedden Campbell Ltd
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