It’s almost an automatic reaction today: You start to feel a little sick and immediately turn to Dr. Google to find out what might be wrong. The next thing you know, your stomachache has escalated to appendicitis and those swollen lymph nodes you were barely concerned about could be cancerous.
While it is important to take your health seriously, online symptom checkers often provide results that are not only unlikely, but reflect the worst-case scenario. This can cause unnecessary anxiety. In fact, a new study from researchers at the Harvard Medical School found that online symptom checking may be doing patients more harm than good.
Using cases from The Human Diagnosis Project, researchers compared the diagnoses of 234 physicians with 23 different online symptom-checker programs. The results showed doctors gave the correct diagnosis on their first guess 72 percent of the time, while symptom-checkers only gave an initial correct diagnosis 34 percent of the time. When given three opportunities to give the correct diagnosis, doctors were correct 83 percent of the time and the computers were correct 51 percent of the time.
However, that’s not to say that online symptom-checkers can’t still provide useful information. For instance, if you’re just looking for a little more information on your symptoms, an online symptom-checker can give you some context. Plus, in many cases, online symptom-checkers — like WebMD and DocResponse — can provide more tailored and accurate information than a basic search engine.
Tips for Using an Online Symptom Checker
The problem lies in what patients are doing with the information provided by an online symptom-checker. Here are a few important things to remember when you’re checking your symptoms online.
- Take everything you read with a grain of salt. While the information you learn might have some merit, it shouldn’t be viewed as a concrete diagnosis.
- Don’t panic. Since most online symptom-checkers provide a range of possible diagnoses, you’re more likely to see unrealistic causes, which aren’t worth worrying about until you talk to your doctor.
- If your symptoms are uncomfortable enough to prompt online research, it’s probably a good sign that you should make an appointment to talk with your doctor about what’s going on. Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
The bottom line? Online symptom-trackers aren’t inherently harmful — as long as you approach them with the right mindset. Regardless, there’s still no substitute for a doctor who understands your health history and can obtain a clearer picture of what may be going on.