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While it’s tempting to ‘self-diagnose’ health symptoms via Dr Google, symptom checkers are only accurate a third of the time, research reveals.

The study, conducted by Edith Cowan University and published in the Medical Journal of Australia 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.

The research also found that the advice provided on when and where to seek health care was accurate 49% of the time.

It has been estimated that Google’s health related searches amount to approximately 70,000 every minute. Close to 40% of Australians look for online health information to self-treat.

“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,” Lead author and ECU Masters student Michella Hill said.

Online symptom checkers ask users to list their symptoms before presenting possible diagnoses. Triage advice is about whether – or how quickly – the user should see a doctor or go to hospital.

“We’ve all been guilty of being ‘cyberchondriacs’ and googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache,” Ms Hill said.

“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.”
Yet according to Ms Hill, online symptom checkers can have a place in the modern health system.

“These sites are not a replacement for going to the doctor, but they can be useful in providing more information once you do have an official diagnosis,” she said.

“We’re also seeing symptom checkers being used to good effect with the current COVID-19 pandemic. 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.”

Ms Hill says the biggest issue was the the lack of government regulation and data assurance as being major issues behind the quality of online symptom checkers.

“There is no real transparency or validation around how these sites are acquiring their data,” she said.

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