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Trying to diagnose a health problem online leads to the wrong answer most of the time, study finds

The U.S. Department of Health is working to eliminate the guesswork out of symptom-checking

Photo (c) Moyo Studio - Getty Images
“Dear Dr. Google, I’ve got a sharp pain in my elbow. What do you think it is?”

Have you ever searched for your symptoms when something doesn’t feel right or you’re under the weather? The truth of the matter is that Google -- or any other search engine -- doesn’t pretend to have a clue what’s going on with your health. That’s simply not the business that the search giant is in. 

But a new study finds that when people go on a deeper dive through the internet for a DIY health diagnosis, they often get inappropriate care advice.

The study, conducted by Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia, found that nearly 80 percent of the respondents make the worldwide web their first stop for symptom checking. 

Woefully inaccurate

In the study’s examination of 36 mobile- and web-based symptom checkers, some sad truths came out. The frequency of an accurate diagnosis showing up as the first result was only 36 percent of the time -- and within the top three results, just 52 percent of the time

"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," the study’s lead author and ECU Masters student Michella Hill, said in a news release.

Even worse in Hill’s opinion is that symptom checkers might give a person a false sense of security when they should be consulting a real physician and not blindly trusting a computer-driven cornucopia of possibilities.

"We've all been guilty of being 'cyberchondriacs' and googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache," she said. "But 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.

Finding a balance

Hill isn’t completely pooh-poohing online symptom checkers. In fact, she thinks they have a place in today’s health system.

"These sites are not a replacement for going to the doctor, but they can be useful in providing more information once you do have an official diagnosis," she said.

"We're also seeing symptom checkers being used to good effect with the current COVID-19 pandemic. 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."

Evidence over assumption

The U.S. Department of Health stands shoulder-to-shoulder on virtual symptom checking. To make sure consumers can get more accurate information, it’s created its own prevention and wellness online resource.

The Department’s MyHealthfinder is built on evidence-based health information that can point someone feeling a pain or pang in what it thinks is the best direction. It has close to 100 prevention and wellness topics ranging from obesity to mental health. It also provides recommendations for clinical preventive services, as well as questions to ask a real physician that an online search engine can’t always answer.

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