Using the Internet to Self-Diagnose?

By Michael J. Horan, MD, MPH, FACP


self-diagnosisI turn to research on the Internet when I want to buy a new car, TV, computer or washing machine. When I go to the Internet, I can find independent consumer product evaluations and comparative cost information across a broad array of vendors. But what if I become ill? I fortunately have a bit of a leg up due to my experience in practicing medicine for over forty years. Having said that, if it is anything more complicated than a cold or flu, I will make an appointment to see my own physician.

But suppose I were not a physician? I could start Googling symptoms, but I might not be able to differentiate between sound information and strong, uninformed opinion. But in a world full of information, what if there was an app where I could enter my symptom(s) then crank out a diagnosis and treatment?

Not only do such apps exist, but in a recent article published in the reputable, peer-reviewed, British Medical Journal, the authors identified 23 free, web or app, symptom checkers and evaluated their accuracy of diagnosis in 45 standardized patient vignettes. Emergency care was required for 15 of the scenarios, non-emergent care was reasonable for 15 and self-management was sufficient for 15 (see the links below to view the original study, accompanying editorial and background information).

Overall, the symptom checkers listed the correct diagnosis, first only 34% of the time, ranging from 5% to 50%. Appropriate advice on what to do next was given in only 57% of cases. Correct advice was much more common for situations requiring emergent care than for those in which self-care was sufficient.

In my practice, I have had an opportunity to see patients who spent the first several days of their illness online. And, in some cases, they sought medical care too late to be helped by a medical intervention that would have worked, had they come in earlier. Even more commonly, the patient has developed a heightened state of anxiety due to their research, which has them convinced that they are suffering from a devastating disease or STD. When this happens, I sometimes have to spend more time distancing them from the misconception that generated their anxiety than I do explaining to them precisely what the correct diagnosis and treatment are.

So what’s my advice? If you have symptoms or signs that you yourself cannot diagnose, do what I do and make an appointment to see your health care provider!

Have a health concern? Don’t hesitate to book your appointment today.