More and more people are turning to the r/STDs Reddit community for encouragement when they are scared or worried about a sexual encounter or have been given bad testing news.
A recently published study showed the community, which has more than 10,000 members, air their concerns and answer questions about sexually transmitted diseases with more and more people joining on the conversation. However, it’s risky getting a “crowd diagnosis” and not a doctor, as it puts a person’s life and their partner’s in jeopardy.
The subreddit, which is what Reddit calls its community pages, was created back in November 2010, and now has close to 17,000 posts. The number of posts in 2010 was just eight. In 2018, the number of posts was more than 3,300. These posts often include candid pictures of redness, lumps and bumps on or around the sexual organs.
One poster, who uploaded a picture, asked people if the bump they had was caused by herpes. Other people come to the community after seeing a doctor, with one saying a test result showed them to have HIV-1 but had to come back to get a second test and wondered if the doctor was wrong about it.
The study, which included a random of 500 posts, found that over half (58 percent) asked site members to give them a diagnosis, with a third of them adding in pictures to identify the potential STD.
Anybody who signs up on the site can respond, with most requests answered within three hours. 80 percent of all requests had a response within 24 hours.
Although there is a chance for incorrect medical advice that could lead to a dangerous situation, the reality is that people are going to the Internet for help, which is something doctors could take advantage of, especially to help those who normally fall through the cracks in healthcare.
University of California, San Diego Vice Chief of Innovation John Ayers conducted the study, and he said people want interactions from actual people, which is attainable through social media. Rather than steering people away from Reddit, he said, experts should help them through the medium. Ayers said people won’t change, which means experts need to change their own strategy and respond to this crowd diagnosis phenomenon.
Other experts are in agreement with this assessment.
NYU Clinical Assistant Professor of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology Jessica Rose said the study reveals the kind of world people are living in. It’s no longer as simple as what has been read in textbooks.
Rose, not involved in this research, said doctors will need to change their care practices to meet the needs of a generation where they are comfortable sharing such intimate health concerns on the Internet instead of a doctor’s office.
Crowd diagnosis offers a level of comfort where reputable sites such as the CDC provides clinical sexual health information.
OB-GYN Dr. Jen Gunter said many websites provide great information but don’t come across as user-friendly, and this can scare people. Medical jargon, she said, is great for the academic publications, but not for one-on-one communication.
Ayers said this is a chance for doctors to team up with social media sites to find those patients in need of services, but should not be a total answer. People are still advised to get tested and treated for their STDs as quickly and early as possible. Waiting can lead to serious health complications, including infertility and even death.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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