JOONDALUP, Australia — Not feeling well and want to know what’s wrong? In the digital age, many people take their health issues straight to trusty “Dr. Google” and online symptom checkers. Unfortunately, a new study says sites dishing out medical opinions aren’t very trusty at all.
Researchers from Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia say online symptom checkers rarely provide the correct diagnosis on the first try. The sites were also found to give people bad information about when and where to seek a doctor’s help.
The study looked at 36 international symptom checkers found on mobile devices and the internet. Researchers say the first result was the correct diagnosis just 36 percent of the time. The correct medical problem was found in the top three results in only 52 percent of the searches.
“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,” lead author and ECU Masters student Michella Hill said in a statement.
The study adds that information about when to see a doctor and where to go was right just 49 percent of the time. Those aren’t great odds when you consider that there are about 70,000 health-related searches on Google every minute.
‘Cyberchondriacs’ Getting Bad Advice
Hill warns that online symptom checkers can do a lot more harm than good; especially if they’re telling people there’s nothing wrong. She adds that these tools won’t know your entire medical history and are likely giving medical opinions without the whole picture.
“We’ve all been guilty of being ‘cyberchondriacs’ and googling at the first sign of a headache,” Hill said. “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.”
Better In An Emergency
The study says advice about when to seek medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases was much more accurate. The information in those cases was right about 60 percent of the time, compared to 30 or 40 percent for non-emergency issues.
Hill explains that it’s good these type of searches err on the side of caution, but they still end up sending people to the emergency room when it’s not needed.
Who’s Checking The Checkers?
The study says the biggest problem with online symptom checkers is the lack of government regulations over these tools. Hill says quality control is a major issue when dealing with medical information around the world.
“There is no real transparency or validation around how these sites are acquiring their data,” Hill explained. “We also found many of the international sites didn’t include some illnesses that exist in Australia.”
Researchers say these sites should not be a replacement for your doctor, but they can give helpful advice once you get a diagnosis from a professional.
The study was published in the Medical Journal of Australia.