For many of us, that first sign of a strange rash or a rattling cough means going right to Google to type in the symptoms and see if you're dying — or if you just have a cold.
Usually that means consulting "symptom checkers" that are created by organizations like WebMD or the Mayo Clinic to provide health information. However, a new study published in The BMJ by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston's Children's Hospital has found that whether that diagnosis is correct is essentially the flip of a coin. On average, online symptom checkers include the proper diagnosis in their first three results 51 percent of the time, and the correct diagnosis was listed first only 34 percent of the time, according to the study.
The researchers put 23 different symptom checkers to the test by using 45 different "patient vignettes" of common and uncommon conditions between June and November in 2014. The symptom trackers that gave advice as to whether a condition required medical attention did so correctly 57 percent of the time, according to the study. Researchers also found that online symptom checkers can often result in unnecessary doctor visits.
“Although there was a range of performance across symptom checkers, overall they had deficits in both diagnosis and triage accuracy,” the study reads. "In two-thirds of standardized patient evaluations where medical attention was not necessary, we found symptom checkers encouraged care."
The study acknowledged that fear and anxiety often play a role in relying on online symptom checkers.
"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 study reads. "Together, confusion, risk adverse triage advice, and cyberchondria could mean that symptom checkers encourage patients to receive care unnecessarily and thus increase healthcare spending."
The study also concludes that it's still always better to see a doctor rather than relying on the Internet to properly diagnose the problem.
“If symptom checkers are seen as a replacement for seeing a physician, they are likely an inferior alternative,” the study reads. “It is believed that physicians have a diagnostic accuracy rate of 85 [to] 90 percent. However, in-person physician visits might be the wrong comparison because patients are likely not using symptom checkers to obtain a definitive diagnosis but for quick and accessible guidance."