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The dangers of online self-diagnosis: new research shows expats at risk

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.

The dangers of online self-diagnosis: new research shows expats at risk
Researching your symptoms online can lead to health anxiety and incorrect diagnoses. 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 with a virtual doctor service

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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HEALTH

How do I get a European Health Insurance Card in Austria?

An European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) provides EU residents with access to public healthcare across the bloc. Here’s what you need to know about getting an EHIC in Austria.

How do I get a European Health Insurance Card in Austria?

A big advantage of living in Europe is the ability to travel to so many different countries.

But sometimes accidents or illness can happen while on holiday or a work trip, which can mean an unplanned visit to a doctor.

READ ALSO: Austria recommends 4th Covid vaccine dose for everyone over 12

Thankfully, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) provides some protection against expensive medical bills in the form of reciprocal healthcare. 

Here’s what you need to know about the EHIC and how to get the card in Austria.

What is an EHIC?

An EHIC is a form of medical insurance cover and replaces the international health insurance voucher (form E111). It is issued free of charge and allows holders to access state-provided medical care while temporarily in another EU country. 

It works on a reciprocal basis through a country’s social security system and care is provided at the same cost as those insured in the country (which means it can be free, in some cases).

This means that if you have an e-card and are insured with one of the public health insurances in Austria, such as ÖGK, for example, you are entitled to the EHIC and to access public health services (to a certain extent) in other countries.

FOR MEMBERS: What is Austria’s e-card and what do you need to know about it?

The EHIC is valid in all 27 EU countries, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the UK.

However, the EHIC is not an alternative to comprehensive travel insurance as it doesn’t cover any private healthcare costs, a flight home or lost/stolen property.

Why do I need an EHIC in Austria?

The main advantage of having an EHIC is if you need medical treatment while briefly travelling in another country.

While the coverage is limited to state-provided healthcare, it does mean you will be treated by a doctor and not liable to pay non-resident medical fees.

READ NEXT: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

Austria’s e-card – the national insurance card – is needed for almost all medical procedures. On the back, it contains the EHIC Ecard image: Wikicommons

How do I get an EHIC?

EHICs are issued by the national health country provider of the country where you live. This could be, for example, the ÖGK or SVA, depending on which provider you use in Austria.

In Austria, every e-card (the health insurance card that is used to visit a doctor) already contains an EHIC on the reverse of the card, so there is no need to apply for it separately. 

However, if the data fields on the EHIC on the back of your e-card contains stars (***) instead of personal information such as name and date of birth, further documentation is required to access healthcare in another EU country.

In this case, you need to contact your social security provider in Austria to receive a replacement card before you travel.

The EHIC is only valid on the condition that you are insured or co-insured in Austria.

Useful words 

Social insurance – Sozialversicherung

Travel insurance – Reiseversicherung

Healthcare – Gesundheitspflege

Useful links

European Commission

Austrian social insurance

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