From the Journals

Requests for crowd diagnoses of STDs common on social media



Requests for crowd diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases were frequent on a social media website, new research found.

The social media website Reddit, which currently has 330 million monthly active users, is home to more than 230 health-related subreddits, including r/STD, a forum that allows users to publicly share “stories, concerns, and questions” about “anything and everything STD related,” Alicia L. Nobles, PhD, of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and associates wrote in a research letter published in JAMA.

Dr. Noble and associates conducted an analysis of all posts published to r/STD from the subreddit’s inception during November 2010–February 2019, a total of 16,979 posts. Three coauthors independently coded each post, recording whether or not a post requested a crowd diagnosis, and if so, whether that request was made to obtain a second opinion after a visit to a health care professional.

About 58% of posts requested a crowd diagnosis, 31% of which included an image of the physical signs. One-fifth of the requests for a crowd diagnosis were seeking a second opinion after a previous diagnosis by a health care professional. Nearly 90% of all crowd-diagnosis requests received at least one reply (mean responses, 1.7), with a median response time of 3.04 hours. About 80% of requests were answered in less than 1 day.

While crowd diagnoses do seem to be popular and have the benefits of anonymity, rapid response, and multiple opinions, the accuracy of crowd diagnoses is unknown given the limited information responders operate with and the potential lack of responder medical training, the study authors noted. Misdiagnosis could allow further disease transmission, and third parties viewing posts could incorrectly self-diagnose their own condition.

“Health care professionals could partner with social media outlets to promote the potential benefits of crowd diagnosis while suppressing potential harms, for example by having trained professionals respond to posts to better diagnose and make referrals to health care centers,” Dr. Nobles and associates concluded.

One coauthor reported receiving personal fees from Bloomberg and Good Analytics, and another reported receiving grants from the National Institutes of Health; no other disclosures were reported.

SOURCE: Nobles AL et al. JAMA. 2019 Nov 5;322(17):1712-3.

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