You’ve most likely used an online symptom checker, or someone in your family has, when worried about a health issue—either small like a common cold, or big, like a cancer scare. While online symptom checkers can evoke relief, they can also do the converse, and worry us into thinking we have something much more serious than we first anticipated.
A quick search on Google using the keywords “online symptom checker” yields pages upon pages of results, and not just vague references to symptom checkers, but actual symptom checkers, generally put out there by online medical businesses, well-established medical centers, associations and schools. The most popular of these and most referenced are, of course, WebMD, The Mayo Clinic, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, the breadth of symptom checker availability speaks loudly to their popularity and use. And now that they have become more and more prevalent and used by millions to check symptoms, a study has been done to check on their accuracy.
According to the recent Atlantic Monthly article, “Online Symptom Checkers Are Often Wrong (Phew),” online symptom checkers only return accurate results somewhere between 34 – 84%, meaning that getting the right information can be really hit or miss, whereas generally doctors and specialists are 85 -90% accurate in diagnosing a health concern based on symptoms.
There are many reasons why symptom checkers aren’t accurate. For one, they algorithmic-based, and if the checker doesn’t understand certain keywords such as “eye rash” it is going to deliver a response based on its best guess at what the searcher is looking for. The researchers of the study also found symptom checkers weren’t good at recommending self-care or home remedies, leading the researchers to wonder if there are unnecessary trips to the ER or doctor based on search results.
As the author of the article, Julie Beck, points out (and somewhat pokes fun at), we are frequently checking to make sure that we don’t have serious health issues like cancer. Whether or not we’re following up with a doctor based on online symptom checker results, or potentially ignoring more serious issues based on reassurance from a checker is still up for study and debate.
What the researchers of the study do feel is known, as the author continues, is that fear is what keeps up checking symptoms online. She posits that if the symptom checkers were more accurate, they could be better at managing that fear. But until then, we at JustAnswer believe that sites like ours hold real value in helping people find peace of mind and accurate information when it comes to their health.
Final verdict? False. Online symptom checkers are not accurate.
Talk to a real doctor instead.