New research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) raises serious doubts about the efficacy of ‘Dr Google’, with a study showing symptom checkers are only accurate about a third of the time.
The study, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, analysed 36 international mobile- and web-based symptom checkers and found the correct diagnosis was produced as the first results only 36% of the time, and within the top three results 52% 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,” said the study’s lead author and ECU masters student Michella Hill.
“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.
“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.”
Triage advice, when and where to seek health care, was accurate 49% of the time, according to the study.
“We found the advice for seeking medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases was appropriate around 60% of the time, but for non-emergencies that dropped to 30% to 40%,” Ms Hill said.
“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.”
Ms Hill said while these sites should be treated with caution, they do have a place in the health system, such as providing more information once you 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.”