Googling A Diagnosis Is Right—Most of the Time

Online symptom checkers provided by WebMD, Mayo Clinic and iTriage are surprisingly accurate

(Illustration: Robert A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Jul 08, 2015 at 6:31 PM ET

People who Google their illnesses instead of going to the doctor are probably no worse off—most of the time—according to a new study. When you plug your symptoms into a seemingly dodgy online algorithm, you can get multiple medical diagnoses from the common cold to Lupus (it’s never Lupus). But how often are they right?

Roughly 70 percent of the time, according to a new study published in BMJ.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School used lists of symptoms straight out of medical school textbooks to put 23 different online diagnostic tools to the test. Overall, the correct diagnosis was listed in the top three search results of the most commonly used medical sites 51 percent of the time but dropped to 34 percent when only the first result was considered. And accuracy varied greatly depending on the source. iTriage and Ask MD ranked highest, each with ~ 70 percent accuracy. Meanwhile, BetterMedicine and EarlyDoc ranked lowest.

Better-known sources of medical web browser anxiety, such as WebMD, The Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School’s Family Health Guide all hovered at around 50 percent accuracy.

Nailing the diagnosis isn’t everything when it comes to web medicine. The authors stress that the most important thing is knowing when to close your laptop and head to the Emergency Room. But not surprisingly, when it comes to panic, the Internet delivers. Even algorithms notorious for misdiagnosis correctly recommended emergency care in 80 percent of critical cases. So even if BetterMedicine isn’t actually better, and even if EarlyDoc isn’t much of a doc, it’s comforting that both apps seem to know when to send a dying Internet addict to the E.R. before it’s too late. Because at the end of the day, the whole point of these online symptom checkers is to help patients decide whether or not it’s time to visit a doctor in the flesh.

“The tools are not likely to go away,” Hannah Semigran, a research assistant in health care policy at Harvard Medical School and coauthor on the study said in a prepared statement. “We’re looking at the first generation of a new technology. It’s important to continue to track their performance to see if they can reach their full potential in helping patients get the right care.”

Read More:

Teens Are Turning To Dr. Google To Answer Their Medical Questions (Vocativ)
A Prescription For Fear (The New York Times)