Have you fallen down the self-diagnosis rabbit hole?

New research shows that as an expat, you are likely to consult the internet with your health symptoms. But the risks involved can be significant. Here’s why you need to stop typing and step away from your computer.

Have you fallen down the self-diagnosis rabbit hole?
Searching for flights online takes time and patience, but it's well worth it. (Photo: Getty Images)

We’ve all done it. That strangely swollen toe, tingle in the throat or persistent headache. Simply type your symptoms into the online search bar and watch as the diagnoses appear. With the click of a button, innocent symptoms evolve into life-threatening illnesses, or maybe your scary medical dilemmas dissolve away, reassured by the information on your screen. 

In partnership with AXA – Global Healthcare, The Local looks at the risk and rise of the online self-diagnosis.

When your own research goes wrong

A quick look at Reddit uncovers hundreds of tales from medical professionals sharing the mishaps, and the occasional success, of online self-diagnosis. 

One father made a scene at a hospital demanding his daughter have an MRI, only to discover the ‘rash’ she had was a very non-life-threatening ink transfer, probably from her clothing. There was also a woman who searched her health symptoms online and discovered she was in labour (actually!), a man who had convinced himself he had gestational diabetes – a condition exclusive to pregnant women. And then there are the many tales of panicked people visiting their doctor, scared and anxious that they have cancer after doing some online research.

But for all the funny stories and relatable anecdotes, there are of course problems and real risks with diagnosing yourself from information online. 

Avoid a self-diagnosis mishap and consult a real doctor instead – AXA’s online doctor service have doctors on call and is available 24/7

Help me, internet 

While the act of online self-diagnosis is not new, the role of online health information and the importance of virtual healthcare grew during the Covid-19 pandemic. People were encouraged to check their Covid symptoms at home, accessing all the information they needed via health authorities online. 

At the same time, the uncertainty around the virus and instructions to stay at home meant many people were unable to access health care, or avoided seeking it in-person. Why take a risk when you can open your laptop and search? 

The problem with this is threefold. You will either self-treat your self-diagnosis (which can be dangerous and do more harm than good). Or, think you are okay, when in fact, you need medical help. Option three involves overreacting to a condition that is not as bad as you thought, causing worry and stress. This can even lead to ‘cyberchondria’, which is when the internet searching of medical information and its associated worries about health becomes excessive. 

Reliable online help is out there. AXA’s global health plans will allow expats to speak to doctors in a range of languages via their Virtual Doctor Service

Virtual healthcare services are convenient but don’t have the risks of online symptom searching.

Mind health matters for expats

For those of us living abroad, the online self-diagnosis phenomenon is even more common. Jumping online is easier than navigating a foreign medical system, right? 

AXA – Global Healthcare recently conducted its biggest ever piece of research on mind health issues, in the wake of Covid-19. The findings can be read in their Mind Health Index

One of the most shocking findings of the research was that almost a third (28 percent) of mental health conditions among people living internationally had been self-diagnosed. 

The study surveyed 11,000 people from 11 countries and territories in Europe and Asia, with 13.5 percent of those participating being individuals who live abroad. The research acknowledged the unique set of mental health challenges faced by expats, who are away from support networks and the comforts of home. 

Depression and anxiety were the most common issues self-diagnosed by internet research among the non-natives surveyed. Worryingly, only 26 percent of internationals who self-diagnosed said their condition was being managed ‘well’ or ‘very well’. This is compared to 49 percent of those with a properly diagnosed condition. Quite clearly this shows the importance of talking to a medical professional about your mental health. 

AXA provides mental health and wellbeing healthcare as part of its global health plans

Overcome the barriers to seeking proper care

Navigating a foreign medical system can be daunting and off-putting, especially when you’re not feeling your best. Not knowing who to call or where to go is only going to exacerbate certain conditions, like anxiety, especially if you don’t yet speak the local language. 

So not understanding the medical landscape of where you live is an obvious reason to turn to online self diagnosing instead. Only around half (53 percent) of expats in AXA – Global Healthcare’s Mind Health Index said they knew how to access mental health help if they needed it. 

“It’s worrying that so many non-natives are using the internet to self-diagnose, but perhaps not surprising,” said Rebecca Freer, Head of Marketing at AXA – Global Healthcare. “Knowing how a local healthcare system works can be challenging, let alone knowing the sources of support you can trust. In contrast to these potential barriers to seeking help, the internet can seem to offer fast and credible sources of advice.”

While accessing healthcare can be one of the challenges of living overseas, overall the experience of life abroad should, and can, be a positive one. Though it’s increasingly common to research your symptoms online, don’t let the risks of a misdiagnosis or an unnecessary spiral of worry and fear impact you. Think again before consulting the internet with your health symptoms.

Get a quote for an insurance plan that suits you from AXA – Global Healthcare and access quality healthcare from their trusted networks

Virtual Doctor service provided by Teladoc Health
Mind Health service provided by Teladoc Health
AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited. Registered in Ireland number 630468. Registered Office: Wolfe Tone House, Wolfe Tone Street, Dublin 1. AXA Global Healthcare (EU) Limited is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland.
AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited. Registered in England (No. 03039521). Registered Office: 20 Gracechurch Street, London, EC3V 0BG, United Kingdom. AXA Global Healthcare (UK) Limited is authorised and regulated in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority.

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EXPLAINED: How Germany’s new electronic sick note works

Since January 1st, 2023, employees in Germany no longer need to pass on paper sick notes to their employers, as these will be sent electronically. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How Germany’s new electronic sick note works

What’s going on?

If you’re unwell in Germany and need a sick note from your doctor, things should be just a little bit simpler now.

Instead of getting a yellow paper slip from the doctor which you have to pass on to your employer, your public health insurance will transmit the data electronically to your employer as eine elektronische Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung (eAU) – an “electronic incapacity for work certificate”.

Previously, employees got three certificates at the doctor’s office: one each for their statutory health insurer, for the employer, and for themselves. Now the sickness certificate is completely electronic.

The aim of the new digitisation is to ease the bureaucracy for employees and health insurers, as well as to improve the documentation of sick leave, which is important for possible payment of sick pay.

Who can get the electronic sick note?

Privately insured people should be aware that only statutory health insurers will be forwarding digital sick notes to employers. Those with private insurance will still need to take good care of their little yellow document for now. 

Parents with statutory health insurance who cannot work because their children are sick will also have to keep hold of the paper sick note from the doctor. 

READ ALSO: Colds and flu: What to do and say if you get sick in Germany

Those who fall ill while on holiday and have to stay abroad for a longer period of time will also still have to send their sick note to their employer by mail. 

Does this mean I don’t have to tell my boss that I’m sick?

Even though employees no longer have to submit the paper sick note to their health insurer or to their employer themselves, they are still obliged to inform their company immediately of their incapacity for work. They also still have to provide a certificate of incapacity for work from the fourth day of sickness.

What information does the employer get? 

Once an employer knows that a staff member is on sick leave, they can submit a digital request to retrieve the eAU from the health insurance company.

If the doctor’s surgery is having technical problems, it sends the printout of the certificate by mail to the health insurance company, where the process is digitised and can then be retrieved by the employer.

READ ALSO: ‘It works’: Your verdict on the German healthcare system

Just as with the previous “yellow slip” – the employer can’t see any information about the diagnosis, or for what reason their employee is off sick – only in the event that the diagnosis is in relation to an accident at work. The certificate from the health insurance company only shows the name of the insured person, the beginning and end of the incapacity for work, and whether or not it is an initial or a follow-on sick note. 

The employer also won’t find out which doctor issued the sickness certificate.

Does this mean an end to all paper sick notes?

Not quite.

Firstly, patients themselves will receive a paper printout of the sick note for their own records. In the future, however, it should also be possible to have the sick leave saved in the electronic patient file.

Also, not all employers – or doctors’ surgeries – have upgraded technically and organisationally in time to get on board with the new digital procedure. 

READ ALSO: 7 things to know about visiting a doctor in Germany

The Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians in Lower Saxony estimates that around 20 percent of health practices in Germany currently lack the technology needed, while the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KBV) fears that many employers will continue to request paper printouts from their employees.

Patients of practices or employees of companies which are not yet up to speed with the new system will therefore continue with the old system of passing on paper sick notes to their employers for the time being.