How Trustworthy Are Online Symptom Checkers? MDs Weigh In


09.26.2018

Getting sick never happens at a convenient time. Pounding headaches always seem to arise when you’re trying to get dinner on the table. And those with kids can attest their youngsters tend to get bellyaches in the most inopportune moments. While you could head to urgent care or try to schedule a last-minute appointment with your primary care physician, you’d rather figure out what you’re dealing with first doing some online investigative work.

In an ideal world, online symptom checkers could prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor and let you figure out the best course of action on your own. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Even the most sophisticated health care technologies can result in error. So, what does that mean for self-diagnosis tools?

For starters, there are multiple ways patients can self-diagnose using the internet. Before we specifically dive into online symptom checkers, it’s worth taking a broader look at how individuals are assessing their health online. You might be surprised at how many options there are and just how prevalent self-diagnosis is.

A look at the self-diagnosis trend

There’s a pretty large chunk of the population that heads straight to their computers when they have questions about their health, much like they would when trying to learn about home-remodeling projects or cooking techniques. A 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project suggests one out of every three American adults has used online resources in an attempt to make a diagnosis. Physicians observe this tendency among patients as well.

“I think almost every patient, or parent of a patient, with access to the internet is using resources ranging from a search engine search to specific medical and layperson health sites to do this,” says Dr. Andrea Paul, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer for BoardVitals.

"At least every couple of months, I see people who have diagnosed themselves using online symptom checkers."

Dr. Carmen Landrau, a Cardiologist based in Houston, Texas, sees patients who rely on these tools pretty regularly as well. “At least every couple of months, I see people who have diagnosed themselves using online symptom checkers,” she shares.

Some individuals even go beyond existing tools. They might reach out to folks who are involved in the same communities they are, even if the group isn’t directly related to medicine.

“People are asking for medical opinions on forums and Facebook groups, even from non-medical audiences, such as parent groups, local groups, and school groups,” Dr. Paul adds. It’s clear this is a common trend in today’s digital age. But what are the implications? Let’s take a closer look.

"People are asking for medical opinions on forums and Facebook groups, even from non-medical audiences."

Evaluating online symptom checkers

You can see that patients have plenty of options for obtaining medical information. Online symptom checkers are particularly interesting, because there are so many. Some symptom checkers are also available via mobile app, making access easier than ever. But is that really a good thing? Keep reading to understand the advantages and disadvantages of using these tools.

Disadvantages of online symptom checkers

Most of the problems associated with tools intended to self-diagnose online are related to accuracy. Even though online symptom checkers are becoming more sophisticated, there are still serious flaws. An audit involving 23 such tools found they provided a correct first diagnosis only 34 percent of the time. Advice about how to proceed with treatment was also shaky.

"They only had a viral syndrome that was going to self-resolve in a similar amount of time with or without taking any of these treatments."

Dr. Landrau has seen treatment missteps firsthand with patients seeking drugstore remedies that simply weren’t necessary. “In reality, they only had a viral syndrome that was going to self-resolve in a similar amount of time with or without taking any of these treatments,” she says.

Even the diagnoses themselves can be problematic. Dr. Paul says a particularly grim conclusion obtained from an online symptom checker can lead to unnecessary fear, worry, and panic. “Most often, these symptom checkers are wrong and cause more concern and distress than is necessary,” she elaborates.

There’s also the other side to consider. Some patients might convince themselves of serious symptoms that require swift attention when, in reality, they are nothing to worry about.

“I have also seen patients who have wasted precious time in not getting the appropriate treatment they needed due to following recommendations from checklists and sites with dangerous consequences,” Dr. Landrau cautions.

Advantages of online symptom checkers

While the downsides are clear, there are some instances when online diagnostic tools can be useful. Patients who generally assume they don’t need any sort of care are a good example.

“In some rare cases, someone who would ordinarily not have sought medical help will come in because of a concerning finding on one of these sites,” Dr. Paul explains.

"These online resources may benefit those with simple or self-limited conditions."

Symptom checkers may also prove useful for those with very mild health problems. “These online resources may benefit those with simple or self-limited conditions,” Dr. Landrau says.

The verdict on using online symptom checkers

Generally speaking, you’re better off seeking medical professionals’ opinions. And that doesn’t mean you need to head to the hospital or clinic. If you’re just trying to determine whether you’re experiencing something serious, start by picking up the phone.

“I would suggest calling your doctor’s office and speaking with a nurse to gauge the urgency of your symptoms,” Dr. Paul recommends.

It’s also important to remember there is a whole host of factors that online symptom checkers fail to take into account. Symptoms are only part of the picture. You typically need a physician to put all the pieces together.

“A good diagnosis requires taking a thorough look at a patient’s history, performing a physical exam, and doing tests that confirm the suspected diagnosis,” Dr. Landrau explains. “This is something that an online checklist cannot do.”

"This is something that an online checklist cannot do."

Find information you can trust

There’s an expansive list of available online symptom checkers geared toward busy people like you. Be careful about how much you rely on them, though. While the tools might help you determine a shorter list of potential conditions, they’re far from foolproof.

Questionable medical information is abundant even beyond symptom checkers. How many times have you seen a claim that gave you pause? Make sure you’re finding reputable information by checking out our article, “75 Top-Notch Medical Blogs Every Health Care Pro Should Know.”

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