‘Dr Google’ wrong more often than not

Matt Woodley

18/05/2020 5:18:47 PM

New research has found people who check their symptoms online only receive correct medical advice about a third of the time.

At keyboard
Researchers believe a lack of government regulation and data assurance are major issues affecting the quality of online symptom checkers.

The study, conducted by Edith Cowan University (ECU) researchers, analysed 36 international mobile and web-based symptom checkers and found they produced a correct diagnosis as the first result just 36% of the time, and within the top three results only 52% of the time.
The research also found that the advice provided regarding when and where to seek healthcare was accurate less than half the time.
Nearly 40% of Australians look for online health information to self-treat medical issues, and it is estimated there are approximately 70,000 health-related searches on Google every minute.
Lead study author and ECU masters student Michella Hill said the findings should give people pause for thought.
‘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.
According to Ms Hill, online symptom checkers may be providing a false sense of security.
‘We’ve all been guilty of being “cyberchondriacs” and Googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache,’ she 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.’
Associate Professor Mark Morgan, Chair of the RACGP Expert Committee – Quality Care (REC–QC), previously told newsGP promoting ‘self-care’ can help patients avoid low-evidence-based drivers, including ‘Dr Google’, from overwhelming other high-quality healthcare messages.
‘It’s all about providing really good quality information and reducing the barriers to evidence-based self-care practice,’ Associate Professor Morgan said.
‘At the moment, self-care happens because it needs to happen, but we know that if we could formalise self-care and provide additional help, then you start to get a win–win situation where people’s overall health improves without necessarily over medicalising, or increasing the use of health resources.
‘GPs see most of the population and we understand both the science and evidence, and we understand the primary and secondary prevention of illness. That understanding means we’re in an ideal place to support and help with self-care.’
Previous research has also shown GPs should assume most parents have searched online for information about their child health’s and should remain open to discussing the findings with them in order to foster trust.
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.’
One area of symptom-checker websites and apps the researchers found to be slightly more accurate was triage advice.
‘We found the advice for seeking medical attention for emergency and urgent care cases was appropriate around 60% of the time, but for non-emergencies that dropped to 30–40%,’ Ms Hill said.
‘Generally the triage advice erred on the side of caution, which in some ways is good but can lead to people going to an emergency department when they really don’t need to.’
However, Ms Hill said a lack of government regulation and data assurance are major issues affecting 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.’
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