More Reason Not to Rely on Google for Diagnoses

Symptom-checkers are convenient, but they're also mostly wrong, new research shows.
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It's a rare specimen among us who hasn't discovered, alone with their phone, that the weird twinge in their ankle is likely terminal. Nothing could be done. She googled too late.

But next time you're delivered this kind of bad news, know there is hope: research published today in the Medical Journal of Australia shows that online symptom checkers are accurate only about a third of the time. According to new research by Edith Cowan University (ECU), a correct diagnosis is given as the first result just 36 percent of the time, and within the top three results 52 percent of the time.


Which, yes, actually that still seems fairly high. But try to see it as a wrong diagnosis 64 percent of the time.

The study analysed 36 international mobile and web-based symptom checkers, on behalf of the roughly 40 percent of Australians who go hunting for evidence of their imminent demise online. In a prepared statement, lead author and ECU Masters student Michella Hill said:

"Most of the time [online symptom checkers] are unreliable at best and can be dangerous at worst … 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 research found that online "triage advice", that is when and where you should seek in-person healthcare, unearthed more accurate results. "We found the advice for seeking medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases was appropriate around 60 percent of the time, but for non-emergencies that dropped to 30 to 40 per cent," Hill said.

Although, "Generally the triage advice erred on the side of caution, which in some ways is good, but can [also] lead to people going to an emergency department when they really don't need to."

That's not to say health content found online doesn't have value. For people with an official diagnosis, symptom-checker sites can provide valid information alongside actual doctor visits. And symptom checkers are being put to good use in the current pandemic, says Hill. "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 issue is largely down to a lack of quality control, with practically zero government regulation overseeing symptom-checker sites. We don't really know where the data is coming from, says Hill, or if it's verified in any way.

"We also found many of the international sites didn't include some illnesses that exist in Australia," she points out, "such as Ross River fever and Hendra virus, and they don't list services relevant to Australia."

Look, we get it; Google is your second, lazier brain. But asking it to determine—through a few hastily typed keywords—the condition of your immensely complex bodily systems is futile. Real-life brains are still, in 2020, the best machines of all.