Online symptom-checkers are wrong two-thirds of the time

Google is probably wrong about your health condition.

sick woman on a couch holding laptop
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  • 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 rise

Giphy

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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