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Should You Diagnose Yourself Online? Here's What Doctors Think

From TIME - April 10, 2018

Online symptom checkers are the digital version of the DIY doctor. Plug in whats ailing youheadache, stomach pains, weird skin rashand you get a list of whats (likely) causing the problem.

The key word is likely. Depending on which version you use, that list could be spot on, or it could lead you astrayluring you into a false sense of reassurance that nothing is wrong, or sending you into a spiral of anxiety about a serious, and possibly even fatal, condition. None of that is new for web-based data searches. But because health information could literally mean the difference between life and death, does checking symptoms online even make sense for the patient?

Not surprisingly, doctors were initially wary of digital diagnosers and questioned how effective they were. But given that online searches are the default for almost everything people are curious aboutfrom home repairs to recipes and even disturbing medical symptomsphysicians have come around to the idea that their patients will be doing some sleuthing on their own.

We recognize that knowledge is power, says Dr. Michael Munger, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians who practices in Overland Park, Kansas. In many cases information is a good thing as part of the overall collaboration between patients and their physicians and care teams. I think the angst comes in around the fact that some of the resources available on the Internet can be good, and some are not so good.

Another problem is that the symptoms people enter are often general, vague complaints that could be a sign of a number of conditions that only a doctor is best equipped to investigate further. The most commonly searched symptoms in the WebMDs checker include bloating, cough, diarrhea, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and headache, according to Ben Greenberg, vice president of mobile products and user experience at WebMD.

When researchers put the leading symptom checkers to the test in a 2015 study, they found that they were about 51% accurate. Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues collected 45 case studies that doctors use to drill medical students and residents on diagnoses, and put them through 23 different online symptom checkers from around the world. Only about half the time did the digital diagnosing tools come up with the correct diagnosis as one of the top three possibilities based on the symptoms people searched. In terms of whether the symptom checkers could correctly advise people on whether they could wait out their complaints because they werent serious, or needed to see a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately, they did slightly better, matching the doctors advice 57% of the time.

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