Doctor Google is almost always wrong, study

Symptom checkers may provide unsuitable or incomplete diagnostic or triage advice for users in Australia, resulting in inappropriate care advice.


Have you ever Googled your symptoms online? Most of us have.

A new study focusing on the accuracy of diagnosis online and offline, suggests that online symptom checkers are only accurate about a third of the time.

The examination by the Edith Cowan University (ECU) investigated 36 international mobile and web-based symptom checkers and discovered they produced the right diagnosis as the first result only 36 percent of the time and within the main three outcomes, 52 percent of the time.

Lead author and ECU Masters student Michella Hill said the findings should give people pause for thought said, “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.”

“Online symptom checkers may be providing a false sense of security. We’ve all been guilty of being ‘cyberchondriacs’ and googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache.”

“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. 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.”

The examination found that triage advice that is when and where to look for medicinal services gave more precise outcomes than for diagnosis.

Ms. Hill said, “We found the advice for seeking medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases was appropriate around 60 percent of the time, but for non-emergencies that dropped to 30 to 40 percent. 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 don’t need to.”

According to Ms. Hill, online symptom checkers can have a place in the modern 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.”

“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 ‘hot spot’ locations for this disease on a national basis.”

“There is no real transparency or validation around how these sites are acquiring their data,” she said.

“We also found many of the international sites didn’t include some illnesses that exist in Australia, such as Ross River fever and Hendra virus, and they don’t list services relevant to Australia.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Michella G Hill et al. The quality of diagnosis and triage advice provided by free online symptom checkers and apps in Australia. DOI: 10.5694/mja2.50600
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