Many of us do a search on Google or other search engine when faced with an unexplained pain or other symptom of possible illness, but do we always get the right answer?
Edith Cowan University masters student Michella Hill investigated 36 international English language mobile and web-based symptom checkers and found they produced the correct diagnosis as the first result just 36 per cent of the time on average and gave accurate advice on seeking further health care (triage) 49 per cent of the time.
Web-based symptom checker varied in their accuracy from 12 per cent to 61 per cent.
Ms Hill created 48 symptom-based scenarios drawn from training material provided to medical students and applied them to each of the symptom checker websites, comparing the results with diagnoses provided by two experienced general practitioners.
“We’ve all been guilty of being ‘cyberchondriacs’ and googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache.”Mich
“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,” she said.
Sometimes the advice received from the websites was wildly inaccurate. For example the US website Family Doctor recommended self-care for acute liver failure and non-urgent care for stroke.
Ms Hill says 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,” 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.
“People who lack health knowledge may think the advice they’re given is accurate or that their condition is not serious, when it may be.”
Ms Hill says online symptom checkers could have a place in the modern health system.
“They 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,” she said.
She said a recent British study had shown that health and computer literacy affected the way people used symptom checkers and that this could challenge patient-doctor relationships if the web-site advice was different to that of the doctor.
“Information on the Internet can be helpful, but it is tricky to separate the good from the bad.
“Overseas websites ignore diseases such as Ross River virus found only in Australia and they don’t refer readers to Australian resources
“Government regulation of symptom checking websites could be done through the Therapeutic Goods administration but that would only apply to Australian sites.
“There is only one home grown website, www.healthdirect.gov.au/symptom-checker, which only offers triage advice, however all information contained in that website is safe,” she said.
“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.”
The study was recently published in the Medical Journal of Australia.