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Online symptom-checkers are wrong two-thirds of the time
Google is probably wrong about your health condition.
- Thirty-six different international mobile and internet-based symptom checkers gave a correct diagnosis as the top result only 36 percent of the time.
- Web advice on when and where to seek healthcare treatment was correct 49 percent of the time.
- It's been estimated that Google's health related searches approximate to 70,000 every minute.
All of us have done it. Prompted by a back ache, twitching body part, or perhaps the notice of a skin discoloration, we type in the symptoms for an instant diagnosis by Google. After all, it's right there in the palm of our hand and, given a solid WiFi connection, always available for consultation. It's been estimated that there are around 70,000 health related searches on Google every minute.The internet gives a dubious diagnosis though. According to new Edith Cowan University (ECU) research recently published in the Medical Journal of Australia, online symptom checkers are wrong about two-thirds (or around 67 percent) of the time.
Troubling research findings
The study analyzed 36 different international mobile and internet-based symptom checkers and discovered that they gave a correct diagnosis as the number one result only 36 percent of the time, and as one of the top three results 52 percent of the time. It was also found that the web advice given on when and where to seek healthcare treatment only had a 49 percent accuracy.
Michella Hill, a ECU Masters student and the lead author of the study, warned that these findings should indicate to people to be cautious before self-diagnosing via the web.
"While it may be tempting to use these tools to find out what may be causing your symptoms, most of the time they are unreliable at best and can be dangerous at worst," she said in an Edith Cowan University press release.
One major problem with the quality of online symptom checkers that Hill highlighted is the lack of government regulation and data assurance.
"There is no real transparency or validation around how these sites are acquiring their data," she pointed out. It was also discovered that many of the international sites didn't include ailments specific to certain regions like Australia. They also didn't list services relevant to Australia, where the study was conducted.
“Cyberchondria” is on the riseGiphy
Hill noted that while we all are guilty of being 'cyberchondriacs' after feeling the first sign of a potential health hiccup, online symptom checkers should be used with skepticism as they lack necessary context in their health diagnosis and advice.
"The reality is these websites and apps should be viewed very cautiously as they do not look at the whole picture - they don't know your medical history or other symptoms," said Hill. "For people who lack health knowledge, they may think the advice they're given is accurate or that their condition is not serious when it may be."
While online symptom checkers like WebMD or Healthline tend to generate a questionable diagnosis, the research found that internet triage advice telling a user when and if to see a medical professional tends to be more accurate. Particularly in the case of medical emergencies. Hill noted that advice for seeking medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases was appropriate around 60 percent of the time. However, for non-emergency cases that dropped to 30 to 40 percent accuracy.
"Generally the triage advice erred on the side of caution, which in some ways is good but can lead to people going to an emergency department when they really don't need to," explained Hill.
The right way to use online medical sources
That's not to say that online resources have no place at all in your individual healthcare. Though medical sites with online symptom checkers are never a replacement for an in-person physician, they can provide helpful information after you have received an official diagnosis from a medical professional.
"We're also seeing symptom checkers being used to good effect with the current COVID-19 pandemic," said Hill. "For example, the UK's National Health Service is using these tools to monitor symptoms and potential 'hotspot' locations for this disease on a national basis."
In other words, you can continue to Google your symptoms at your own mental health risk, but odds are the first result isn't your problem.
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Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.
- Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
- Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
- The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.
Study findings<p>For the study, <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05970-4" target="_blank">published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine</a><em>, </em>Flentje and her team evaluated survey responses from nearly 2,300 individuals who identified as being in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Most of the participants were white, while nearly 19 percent identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Multiple genders were represented with cisgender women (27.2 percent) and men (24.6 percent) making up a majority of the participants. Sixty-three percent had been assigned female at birth. For the most part, participants identified their sexual orientations as queer (40.3 percent), gay (36.5 percent), and bisexual (30.3 percent).</p><p>The JGIM study participants were recruited from the 18,000-participant <a href="https://pridestudy.org/" target="_blank">PRIDE Study</a> (Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality), which is the first large-scale, long-term national study focusing on American adults who identify as LGBTQ+. It conducts annual questionnaires to understand factors related to health and disease in this population. </p><p>Participants filled out an annual questionnaire (starting in June 2019) and a COVID-19 impact survey this past spring. Flentje noted that on an individual level, some people may not have experienced a big change in anxiety or depression levels, but for others there was. Overall, depression increased by a <a href="https://patient.info/doctor/patient-health-questionnaire-phq-9" target="_blank">PHQ-9 score</a> of 1.21, putting it at 8.31 on average. Anxiety went up by a <a href="https://www.mdcalc.com/gad-7-general-anxiety-disorder-7" target="_blank">GAD-7</a> score of 3.11 to an average of 8.89. Interestingly, the average PHQ-9 scores for those who screened positive for depression at the first 2019 survey decreased by 1.08. Those who screened negative for depression saw their PHQ-9 scores increase by 2.17 on average. As for anxiety, researchers detected no GAD-7 change among the study participants who screened positive for anxiety in the first survey, but did see an overall increase of 3.93 among those who had initially been evaluated as negative for the disorder. </p>
Risks among gender and sexual minorities<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fc3fd1ae68b77bbbf58a6995638d6d65"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EnUqDjCqg0A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The LGBTQ+ community is a vulnerable population to mental health concerns because of their fear of stigmatization and previous discriminatory experiences.</p> <p>Previous research by the Human Rights Campaign has found "that LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/general+population/" target="_blank">general population</a> to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care, paid <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/medical+leave/" target="_blank">medical leave</a>, and basic necessities during the pandemic," said researcher Tari Hanneman, director of the health and aging program at the campaign.</p> <p>"Therefore, it is not surprising to see this increase in anxiety and depression among this population," Hanneman said in the release. "This study highlights the need for <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/health+care+professionals/" target="_blank">health care professionals</a> to support, affirm and provide <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/critical+care/" target="_blank">critical care</a> for the LGBTQ community to manage and maintain their mental health, as well as their physical health, during this pandemic."</p>
What should health care providers do?<p>The authors of the study recommend that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders in members of that community—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.</p><p>As cases of COVID-19 continue to mount, the sustained social distancing, potential isolation, economic precariousness, and personal illness, grief, and loss are bound to have increased and varied impacts on mental health. Effective treatments may include individual therapy and medications as well as more large-scale coronavirus support programs like peer-led groups and mindfulness practices. </p><p>"It will be important to find out what happens over time and to identify who is most at risk, so we can be sure to roll out public health interventions to support the mental health of our communities in the best and most effective ways," said Flentje.</p>
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