You wake up in the middle of the night with a sharp pain in your stomach. What could it be—maybe something I ate? So, naturally, you type your symptoms into your go-to search engine, and suddenly the possible causes of the pain become much more severe. It’s probably food poisoning? Or maybe kidney stones? Oh no it’s probably appendicitis… do I need to go to a hospital immediately?
For your typical hypochondriac, online symptom checkers are a rabbit hole of medical information and the anxiety that comes with it. But according to a new study led by researchers at the Harvard Medical School, most of these sites are so inconsistent and inaccurate that patients shouldn’t rely upon them for correct diagnoses.
In the study, which was published in the British Medical Journal, the researchers looked at 23 web sites from around the world that claim to offer information for diagnosis and triage (assessing how urgently a condition needs to be treated). They used 45 patient vignettes, about half of which were common conditions, to assess the sites’ accuracy.
They found that the correct diagnosis came up first only 34 percent of the time. Half the sites had the right answer in their top three results, and almost 60 percent had it in the top 20. Triage advice fared a bit better, with accurate suggestions coming up first 57 percent of the time. The sites in which the right answer came up as the first result most often were: DocResponse (50 percent), Family Doctor (47 percent), and Isabel (44 percent).
Though some clinicians claim that online symptom checkers are a good way to cut down on unnecessary doctor visits, the researchers found the opposite to be the case—two thirds of patients who used the symptom checkers but didn’t need medical attention sought it anyway. “Some patients researching health conditions online are motivated by fear, and 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,” the researchers write.
They hope that their work can help lead to more accurate symptom checker web sites, but also that patients are more aware that they should take online medical diagnoses with a big grain of salt. “[Symptom checkers are] designed to be a starting point,” John Wilkinson, an editor of the symptom checker site from the Mayo Clinic, told WBUR’s Common Health. He hopes that these sites allow patients to “be better equipped to have a conversation with their doctor or a nurse triage line or whatever the next step might be.”