A new study from Edith Cowan University suggests that Google is not the best place to seek out a health diagnosis. According to the research, online symptom checkers are only accurate in one out of every three searches.
The experts analyzed 36 web-based symptom checkers. The study showed that the correct diagnosis was the top result 36 percent of the time, and the advice on when and where to seek health care was accurate 49 percent of the time.
Nearly 40 percent of Australians look online to self-diagnose their health issues. It is estimated that there are about 70,000 health-related Google searches every minute.
Study lead author Michella Hill said the findings should give people pause for thought.
“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 Hill.
She noted that online symptom checkers may be providing people with 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,” 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.”
Online advice for when and where to seek healthcare, known as triage advice, was found to be more accurate than the health diagnoses.
“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.
“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.”
According to Hill, online symptom checkers are not a replacement for going to the doctor, but can be useful in providing more information after 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 ‘hotspot’ locations for this disease on a national basis.”
The research was published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer