These days, most of us turn to Google before consulting a doctor when we feel symptoms that make us worry or feel uncomfortable.
That usually lands most of us on websites like WebMD or the Mayo Clinic, where we type in a description of what’s bothering us and hit “diagnose.” We’ll then get a result that usually takes one of two forms: Either the website tells you you’re fine (in which case you’d go back to doing what you were doing), or it’ll tell you that you’re going to die right now (or soon), sending you scrambling to a doctor without a second thought.
Here’s a reason why you should consider firing Google as your family practitioner: Those websites you’ve been relying on are only accurate about 50 per cent of the time. Or at least, those are the findings in a new study out of Harvard Medical School.
Researchers found that in only about a third of cases, the website will guess your condition bang-on. Half of the time, your condition may be tucked into the top three options. As for the rest? The website is just plain wrong.
“The bottom line is, [these websites] aren’t as accurate as you’d imagine they’d be,” Dr. Marla Shapiro says in the video, above.
Part of the problem is many symptoms you can select online aren’t specific and don’t allow you to input any additional details, Shapiro says. For example, headaches — are the headaches recurring? Is the pain sharp and sudden or dull and long-lasting? Is the headache pain focused on one part of your head? These questions can all shape what kind of diagnosis you might end up with.
Not to worry, there is some good news: The study found that these websites are more likely to err on the side of caution, urging you to see a doctor when that may not be necessary (which is still better than the website telling you you’re fine, when you aren’t). Dr. Shapiro also said that some telephone diagnosing services are generally more accurate, because they allow for more detailed information to be exchanged between patient and professional. If you’re in Ontario, you could try out the province’s Telehealth line.
Otherwise, do yourself a favour and just see a doctor.