‘Cyberchondria’: 40% of Americans have misdiagnosed themselves online

A new survey highlights the side effects of using Google to self-diagnose.

‘Cyberchondria’: 40% of Americans have misdiagnosed themselves online
Pixabay
  • A new survey of Americans suggests that online self-diagnosing often leads to stress and unreliable information.
  • Forty percent of respondents said they had received inaccurate diagnoses online.
  • Still, symptom-checkers can be useful, especially for determining when to go to the hospital.


Using Google to self-diagnose potential medical conditions often leads to stress and seriously inaccurate diagnoses, according to a new survey.

The survey, commissioned by a personal health testing company LetsGetChecked, polled 2,140 Americans and found that 65 percent had tried diagnosing themselves on Google. Of those respondents, 74 percent said these attempts had stressed them out. One reason: The diagnoses they found online were inaccurate more than half of the time, meaning many people falsely convince themselves they have serious illnesses.

Why not see a doctor? A majority of survey respondents said they'd avoided doctors because of factors like cost, lack of time and concerns that the doctor wouldn't take their symptoms seriously. Given these reasons, it's no wonder why many prefer the immediate consultation of "Dr. Google" or "Google University", as some health care professionals have dubbed the online self-diagnosis phenomenon. Self-diagnosing has become so common that there's even a word for people who do it too much: "cyberchondriacs".

Do symptom-checkers do any good?

But is there any value in using the internet to self-diagnose? David Kopp, chief executive officer of Healthline Media, argued that Googling symptoms often helps people better manage their health.

"Contrary to popular belief, consumers can typically trust what they find online," Kopp wrote in an opinion piece in Newsweek. "The three fastest growing online sources of medical information contain content written or curated by physicians. In addition, reputable government sites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health are among the most visited on the internet."

The keyword there is "reputable" — there's of course no shortage of shoddy, unreliable and downright insane medical advice on the internet. Still, some sources do seem to help people self-diagnose with relative accuracy.

A 2015 study published by BMJ in 2015 examined 23 popular symptom checkers commonly used by insurance companies, medical schools and government agencies. Overall, these systems correctly diagnosed the condition on the first try 34 percent of the time, and the correct diagnosis appeared in the first three diagnoses about half of the time. (The symptom-checkers with the highest accuracy were Isabel, iTriage, Mayo Clinic and Symcat, all of which are free to use.)

Symptom-checkers often get it wrong, but they generally do a good job of telling people when to go to the hospital.

"It's not nearly as important for a patient with fever, headache, stiff neck, and confusion to know whether they have meningitis or encephalitis as it is for them to know that they should get to an ER quickly," Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, told The Harvard Gazette. "These tools may be useful in patients who are trying to decide whether they should get to a doctor quickly, but in many cases, users should be cautious and not take the information they receive from online symptom checkers as gospel."

Why symptom-checkers can't replace a doctor

The main shortcoming of symptom-checkers is that they don't factor in your comprehensive medical history.

"Each person has a different family history, has experienced different risk factors, and has his own social history, all of which contribute to the decision-making process a physician goes through," board-certified internist Dana Corriel, MD, told Byrdie in an interview.

So, even though a symptom-search for "cough" might show "cold" next to "lung cancer", it's usually no reason to panic. But if you're unsure?

"A primary care doctor is always available for a quick visit or question on the phone," Corriel said. "They cover general internal medicine and can answer most questions about the body."

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