Is Checking Your Symptoms Online the Right Thing to Do?

Posted by Meghan Orner on September 21, 2015

Is Checking Your Symptoms Online the Right Thing to Do?

Amid our busy schedules, it has become extremely convenient and enticing to simply turn to Google anytime we have a question or concern. No matter how trivial or odd your question may seem, Google or Siri are bound to have some answers for you. They even have answers to some of your bigger questions – such as whether a cough could be the sign of a simple cold or something much more serious.

But before you put your full trust in technology to determine your health risks, it’s important to realize that online symptom checkers may not always be right. In fact, they may only be right about 50 percent of the time!

Accuracy is Key

When it comes to checking your symptoms, accuracy is key, but a new study from researchers at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School revealed that the accuracy of online symptom checkers is much lower than we’d like.

To test the accuracy of online symptom checkers, 45 different ‘patient vignettes’ were submitted into 23 checkers between June and November 2014. Two elements were then measured: the accuracy of the recommendations for three different kinds of care (emergency, non-emergency and self-care) and the accuracy of the diagnosis itself – mainly if the correct diagnosis was found within the first 20 results of possible diagnoses.

It was through this process that researchers discovered that the proper diagnosis can be found in the first three results only 51 percent of the time with the correct diagnosis being the first result only 34 percent of the time. Even online symptom checkers from some of the most reputable sources, like Mayo Clinic or WebMD, did not have a higher accuracy rate. The accuracy of care recommendations was slightly higher as online symptom checkers were correct 57 percent of the time.

Ever read about your symptoms online and immediately panic? Experiencing this anxiety and fear could be another downside to repeatedly turning to online symptom checkers. According to the study, “The listing of concerning diagnoses by symptom checkers could contribute to hypochondriasis and ‘cyberchondria,’ which describes the escalated anxiety associated with self-diagnosis on the Internet.”

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“What’s Up, Doc?”

When it comes to checking your symptoms, there really is no substitute to seeing your doctor as physicians provide accurate diagnoses 85 to 90 percent of the time, which is obviously much higher than the accuracy of online symptom checkers. Many of the symptoms that you check online would be great topics of discussion during your annual physical exam. Annual physical exams are quite possibly one of the best ways to prevent future health risks, which is why physical exams should be a priority as you age.

When using these online symptom checkers, we desire, and surely expect, accuracy, but when it comes to matters of your health, it is best to exercise caution. The convenient online symptom checkers may be great for a quick reference, but they just can’t compare to the more reliable diagnosis your doctor can offer. 


TAGS: accuracy of online symptom checkers