• Robb G. Best

When Google is Your Doctor, Beware

Feeling a bit sick? Wondering if you're coming down with something? If your first instinct is to turn to Google for a little self-diagnosis, maybe think again. That's the advice from a recent study at Australia's Edith Cowan University, published in the Medical Journal of Australia. The research suggests that mobile- and web-based symptom checkers are wrong roughly two-thirds of the time.

Researchers analyzed 36 different online self-diagnosis tools and found them to yield an accurate diagnosis as the first only about 36% of the time. The correct diagnosis was in the top three options in just 52% of searches. Perhaps more worryingly, the tools' advice on when to seek a doctor was correct just 49% of the time.

There are an estimated 70,000 health-related searches every minute, and nearly 40% of Australians look to the internet to look for information to treat their own ailments.

“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,” said lead author and ECU Masters student Michella Hill.

She explained that online diagnosis tools lack some crucial information, including your medical history or other symptoms.

“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,” said Hill. She noted that the tools tended to err on the side of caution, which can be a good thing, but can also overburden the medical system.

While online diagnosis sites are no substitute for a doctor, Hill did say that they have their place in the medical system. “We’re also seeing symptom checkers being used to good effect with the current COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "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.”

However, symptom checkers are not beholden to government regulations, and are not transparent about where they get their data from. In addition, these online resources may not take into account local or country-specific maladies.

So the next time you turn to Dr. Google for a diagnosis, remember to take it with a grain of salt.

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