Beware Dr. Google and the Symptom Checkers

There are many ways in which technology has made our lives more convenient. When was the last time you called a travel agent, or got lost in a city, or not known where the nearest pizza establishment was? On some level, this convenience, ubiquity, and ease-of-use has created an expectation that the internet can answer all questions. But the truth is that while the information super-highway has transformed the world in profound and lasting ways, there are still tasks that it is not well suited to. One of those tasks is diagnosing disease. I know how tempting it can be when something goes wrong to browse on over to WebMD or any of the other dozens of sites that offer symptom checking services, but a recent Harvard Medical School review shows that these sites often get it wrong. According to the review, only 34 percent of symptom checkers had the correct diagnosis listed first. And here’s the thing. Depending on the symptom and the individual case, if relied upon this information could lead at best to wasting precious time and at worst to actual catastrophe. This is not to suggest that as physicians we always get the diagnosis right. Far from it. But would you go to a doctor who only got it right a mere 34% of the time? The popularity of these sites probably comes from a combination of factors. They are immediately available, they leverage the instant gratification that we’ve become accustomed to from technology, and many Americans simply do not have access to proper medical care. I’m a big proponent of patients educating themselves about their conditions and using all of the tools at their disposable, including the internet, to better understand their disease. But at the crucial phase when you know something is wrong, but you’re not sure what it is, avail yourself of our services. As medical professionals, we have spent a lot of time and effort honing our diagnostic skills and those of us who are good at what we do excel at the art of diagnosis in ways that an algorithm will never be able to replicate.