Symptom Checkers & Misdiagnosis. Even The Good Ones Miss:
This post is going to sound a bit contradictory on HT, but it’s still important.
While there are plenty of reasons to do research and educate ourselves,
Especially regular visitors to HT,
There are at least a few reasons to be cautious on the internet when looking for health information.
Not the least of which are any of the $25,000/visit crazy wasp-based hacks over on GOOP.
And even a little bit more worrisome than that, a few recent surveys & studies have found specifically that self-diagnosing using the internet may not be such a great thing…
Yes, The Internet Is Great. But We’re Still Amateurs:
So the internet is one of the best things to happen to us in many different ways.
-Not counting social media.
We have never been as able to research anything before to the same extent we can right now.
From product prices, to vacation destinations, and yes of-course, anything related to Health & Wellness.
And as-far as the last two are concerned, we all have to remember that we’re just Amateurs.
And that means The Short Answer for the current studies show that in a high-percentage of cases, online symptom-checkers are pretty inaccurate, and often unreasonably-scary for the non-doctors using them to self-diagnose their symptoms.
Read on to find out more details…
A Parallel-Case Expert Evaluation Matrices Are Key:
So one parallel we can talk about as an example is Psychology.
Now even though there are fewer conditions and perhaps simpler solutions,
A doctor in psych. would have a list of disorders or illnesses to select from on a diagnostic list.
They would then evaluate how many of 5-10 characteristics the patient had,
And the Severity of each, on some kind of low-high or percent scale.
Only then could they say the patient actually had a disorder,
Instead of having some amount of negative qualities that Everyone has to some extent.
But they have to go through that matrix of Symptoms X Severity, and maybe add in some past-experience to diagnose.
Self-Diagnosis Is Dangerous, So Know Your Limits:
And a doctor evaluating Health-concerns would have to do something similar,
Except much more complex; and that’s where the problems come-in.
Because internet-researchers, or “Cyberchondriacs” as MDs lovingly call us,
Are still Amateurs.
That’s why there even several memes out there with the South Park Ski Instructor saying things like,
“If you self-diagnose over the internet on WebMD, … You’re gonna have a bad time.”
Strangely-enough, the recent studies agree with that.
So in a survey recently-done by the online health-test company Let’s Get Checked,
And a study by a Harvard-lead team,
They found that Cyberchondriacs looking for internet-diagnoses did have a bad time.
So Here’s What The Survey Said:
So in LetsGetChecked’s survey of about 2,000 Americans,
Roughly 65% of them had tried to self-diagnose using internet resources.
And more than 50% of those people had received incorrect conclusions as a result.
As you might imagine, given the “Every condition is fatal on WebMD” meme,
A huge percentage of these subjects likely received not just an incorrect, but a More Serious diagnosis,
And as a result, almost 3/4 of that cohort repeated greatly-increased levels of Stress & Anxiety as a result of those conclusions.
The BMJ+Harvard Study Went Even Further:
In the even more-formalized study lead by Harvard a few years ago,
It wasn’t just Google that was tested.
That BMJ-published study covered 23 well-known and reputable symptom-checkers,
Even ones that are used more-formally by organizations than just the casual surfer.
And the average of those misdiagnosed people 66% of the time.
Although, it was a small-consolation that within the final list of possible-conditions,
The right one was among the choices at-least 50% of the time.
But there is some light at the end of the tunnel for now.
Many Of Them Are Better At Getting You To More-Serious Care:
Because although even the best symptom-checkers don’t allow amateurs to be too accurate,
The lead-researcher of the BMJ study points-out they Do get people to doctors & hospitals at a much better rate.
And that’s one of the most-important things.
Because it may not be crucial that the patient is the first one to know the specific ailment he or she has,
But that they get Professional, or even Emergency care when they need it.
The particular taxonomy for why can come later after the fix has been implemented.
Those figures were: 58% accuracy for recommended doctor-visits,
And 80% accuracy for emergency-room visits,
Which is great, because it’s probably better for those checkers to be more-cautious than not.
Why Do People Just Avoid Going To The Doctor?:
Most study subjects listed the reasons for checking online as-follows:
2) Wait-Time For Appointments
3) Lack of Free Time
4) Logistical Concerns
5) Fear of Embarrassment or Doctor Not Taking Them Seriously
6) Skepticism From Modern Medicine’s Failure to Cure Many Serious Conditions
There are probably a few more, but these reasons are unlikely to change with time unless the conditions underlying those excuses do.
So back to the internet-diagnosis-machine people go.
Where on the one hand, there is some hope for the future, because many of these symptom-checkers are still in their early-versions,
And perhaps with time, many more factors can be taken into-account, even with the addition of some kind of AI algorithm.
But for now, that’s where things fail.
Your Own Doctor Almost Always Knows You Better:
Because as we’ve talked about before, people who see the same doctor over time actually live longer.
And that’s one of the big reasons symptom-checkers don’t work as well as your doc.
They don’t know you, they don’t know your personal medical history, your family medical history,
And all the different treatments & meds you’ve had over the years, in what forms, and how you responded to them.
All of which is the mental-shorthand that long-experience with one doctor builds-up.
Misdiagnosis Or Not, Here Are A Few Of The Best Symptom Checkers:
A short list of the best online symptom-checkers includes:
In-addition to this, there are of-course doctor-authored sites that describe conditions in-detail for potential-patients researching them outside of a checklist or flowchart-based format.
And although HT tries to keep as many crazy health-fads off this site as possible, there are plenty of non-doctor-authored health-sites out there that are definitely Le Crazy in what they discuss.
So although modern medicine still has several conditions left to cure, and that can tend to drive sufferers to more alternative or ancient/traditional sources of thought on healing,
The doctor-authored sites are still the best source for serious research on serious conditions.
Whatever GOOP is selling this month, don’t buy it.
Stay Vigilant, Because Health & Diagnosis Will Only Get More Digitized:
So although the future is getting brighter and better for all things, including health-research.
And one day soon, many of us will just FaceTime with our MDs using TelaDoc, the way Amazon already has started.
Please remember, there is a real danger to BOTH self-diagnosis and self-medication.
The internet is great for information and research, but it’s not gospel and incorrect-diagnosis rates of 50-66% even on the best symptom-checkers are not particularly-high win-rates.
So whatever information you find on the internet,
Whether it’s a crazy freakonomics-style study here,
Manuka-honey-madness out there in the wellness-sphere, or even a respected online-resource or app.
Make sure you don’t misdiagnose by trusting a symptom-checker too much; always check in with a professional MD regardless of any misgivings.
• Source: Harvard Gazette
• Source Study: BMJ – Evaluation of symptom checkers for self diagnosis and triage: audit study