People are turning to Reddit to try to get coronavirus diagnoses amid test shortages



  • As anxieties surrounding the spread of the novel coronavirus worsen, some people are turning to Reddit for medical information.
  • Redditors are posting across subreddits and listing their symptoms in an attempt to crowd-source diagnoses of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. 
  • This method of diagnosis is unwise for a number of reasons, Dr. Sandra Kesh told Business Insider, including the fact that COVID-19 cannot be diagnosed by symptoms alone, but in the US, people have encountered test shortages. 
  • Reddit, however, may be a useful resource, as it offers a platform for people to share their medical experiences. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, some concerned individuals are trying to ease their health anxieties by consulting Reddit. 

A general search for “coronavirus” on the site reveals 36 posts from worried Redditors posting across a variety of subreddits, looking for the answer to one question: “Do I have coronavirus?”

Many of the posts come from people listing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new virus. These symptoms can also be caused by other illnesses, including the flu.

“I have gotten a pretty violent flu my symptoms match up near-perfectly to the symptoms of Coronavirus,” one Redditor wrote in a post titled “Do you think I have Coronavirus?” in the r/Coronavirus subreddit. “Sore throat, Bad cough/when I breathe in too hard I cough really hard and painfully, bad fever, earaches (which i’m prone to getting whenever I am ill) and constant excruciating migraines.” 

Turning to Reddit for a COVID-19 diagnosis or general medical advice is unwise, according to an infectious disease specialist.

While crowdsourcing can theoretically yield useful information, people without medical training are unlikely to be able to discern what’s actually accurate. As a result, it’s best to avoid turning to platforms like Reddit for medical diagnoses, according to Dr. Sandra Kesh, Deputy Medical Director and Infectious Disease Specialist at Westmed Medical Group.

“Someone reading the information on Reddit may incorrectly assume she does not have the infection and not seek appropriate medical care,” Kesh told Insider. “On the other side, many may falsely believe they are infected and seek medical care, inadvertently overwhelming our health care resources in the process, and making it hard for health care providers to focus on those who are actually infected.”

Attempts to receive a COVID-19 diagnosis online are particularly futile; there is no foolproof way to diagnose the illness based on symptoms alone because of the overlap with common viral infections.

Online forums need to take steps to address misinformation.

Because we’re in the early stages of coronavirus spread, there is more unknown about the infection than is known — and in the absence of data, misinformation tends to spread, Kesh said. Accordingly, Reddit should be held accountable for critical health information disseminated on the platform. 

“I think Reddit, and other sources of information to the general public, have a responsibility to identify and dispel inaccurate information,” she said. “At the very least, a prominent disclaimer should be posted to encourage anyone with suspected infection to seek information from a reliable medical source.”

Online platforms, she said, also have a unique opportunity to become a legitimate avenue for public health information.

“Partnering with a reliable source of medical information (like the CDC) to provide a FAQ page might be a good way to provide their readers with a source of information they can depend on to be accurate,” Kesh said. 

Reddit declined to provide an on-the-record statement to Business Insider, but a representative shared a blog post advertising the platform’s ask-me-anything sessions with doctors and coronavirus experts.

Access to medical care and testing isn’t universal. 

Kesh’s advice for those who believed they are infected is to call their primary care doctor, who can figure out how to proceed. 

For those without insurance or a primary care physician, taking those first steps may be more difficult. 

Taking next steps to diagnose the illness is also proving to be difficult, as the United States is facing a shortage of coronavirus test kits. In a press briefing on Monday, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephan Hahn said nearly one million test kits would be ready by the end of the week — however, Vice President Mike Pence later admitted that the Trump administration would not be able to the deliver the intended one million tests in that time frame.

Subreddits like r/medical_advice and r/AskDocs make an effort to recruit verified medical professionals to answer questions for people.

The “Medical Advice” subreddit describes itself on the site as “made by healthcare professionals with the idea of assisting those who may not be able to afford regular healthcare costs by allowing them to ask questions on minor health issues.” 

Those who are confirmed as legitimate medical professionals by the subreddit’s moderators are flagged so readers can filter through responses more effectively.

However, Redditors have no way of confirming these credentials themselves — and the coronavirus arguably surpasses the designation of “minor health issues.”

Not all Reddit posters are turning to online forums in lieu of healthcare providers. Some are using the platform to warn others about their medical experiences. 

On February 28, a 35-year-old man from Brooklyn posted in the r/nyc subreddit detailing what he described as “a very f—– situation” regarding coronavirus testing.  

After returning from a business trip to Japan, where at least 230 people have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the Redditor claimed to have begun exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19: fever, coughing, and body aches. He was admitted to the NYU Langone Health — Cobble Hill emergency department in Brooklyn and put in isolation. 

Tests for twenty other viruses, including five strains of the flu, came back negative.

After reviewing his test results, he says, the hospital called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and requested permission to perform COVID-19 testing. The CDC, however, denied the request on the grounds that he did not display the most life-threatening symptoms, like chest pain and shortness of breath.

Business Insider previously verified the paperwork from his hospital visit and reviewed a letter from the man’s ER doctor, who said he was not a patient “of concern to have COVID-19.”

“They discharged me, said I don’t have Corona virus, since they didn’t test me for it, and said I can ride the subway, return to work, do whatever I want,” he wrote in the post. 

He added that he’d self-imposed a 14-day quarantine after consulting his primary care physician. 

Redditors immediately weighed in on the subject; the post has received over 8,000 upvotes on the Subreddit and received hundreds of comments. 

“Can’t have confirmed cases if we don’t test for them amirite?” one commenter wrote. 

“In case no one said it already, thanks for doing a self-quarantine. really appreciate it,” another said. 

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