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'Dr Google' is unreliable

Tuesday May 19th, 2020

Online symptom checkers provide inaccurate diagnoses two thirds of the time, according to a new Australian study.

Researchers at the Edith Cowan University, Perth, analysed 36 international mobile and web-based symptom checkers and found they produced the correct diagnosis as the first result just 36% of the time, and within the top three results 52% of the time.

However, advice on when and where to seek health care was accurate 49% of the time.

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, lead author and ECU Masters student Michella Hill said people should urge caution before turning to “Dr Google” because they could get a false sense of security.

"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.

"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.

"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."

The study found that triage advice provided more accurate results than for diagnoses, with the advice for seeking medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases being appropriate about 60% of the time. That figure dropped to 30-40% for non-emergencies.

Ms Hill said while online symptom checkers have a place in the modern health system, providing useful information once an official diagnosis has been provided from a doctor.

She said symptom checkers are being used well for Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting the UK’s NHS tools to monitor symptoms and potential 'hot spot' locations for this disease.

Hill M, Sim M, Mills B. The quality of diagnosis and triage advice provided by free online symptom checkers and apps in Australia. Medical Journal of Australia 19 May 2020

https://doi.org/10.5694/mja2.50600

Tags: Australia | General Health

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