Why You Should Go To A Doctor, Not The Internet

We're probably all guilty of turning to Dr. Search Engine in times of illness in an attempt to self-diagnose whatever ails us. However, as a new study that will surprise exactly no one confirms, online self-diagnosis is usually not a good idea. The study, which was published in, JAMA Internal Medicine has reaffirmed what we already knew deep down: When we're sick, we should go to the doctor, rather than just booting up our favorite browser. Surprise!

In order to reach this conclusion, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital tested out 45 hypothetical patients known as “vignettes," NY Magazine's Science Of Us blog reports. These fake patients had their medical history and symptoms presented to 234 physicians and 23 online symptom checkers, including couple of our old favorites (hi there, WebMD). 19 cases were rare conditions, while the others were more commonly diagnosed illnesses. All the hypothetical cases were grouped into order of seriousness, with a third requiring minimal care, another third being moderately serious, and the final third classed as highly serious. The researchers discovered that doctors were able to diagnose correctly 72 percent of the time; online materials across websites and apps, however, scored only a worrying 34 percent accuracy rate. Doctors also managed to be right 84 percent of the time with the top three answers, versus 51 percent for the online tools.

Speaking to Reuters about the findings, Dr. Andrew M. Fine of Boston Children’s Hospital, who was not part of the study, explained how medical experts are better positioned to help with a diagnosis; he also went some way in addressing the real-life doctors' 28 percent failings. “In medical school, we are taught to consider broad differential diagnoses that include rare conditions, and to consider life-threatening diagnoses," he said. “National board exams also assess our abilities to recognize rare and ‘can't miss’ diagnoses, so perhaps the clinicians have been conditioned to look for these diagnoses."

As Science Of Us noted, however, although it's worrying to note that doctors were wrong 28 percent of the time, we have to remember that the doctors were also unable to examine the patients personally or run tests; they just had to go on the information provided in the notes of the hypothetical patients, just like the virtual "doctors."

The study is especially pertinent for Millennials; prior research shows that we're two times more likely than those aged 45 to 54 years old to turn to social media for health information. Additionally, 90 percent of us trust medical information shared online by someone in our peer group. However as Science Of Us notes, searching for our symptoms on the internet can also cause heightened anxiety and stress, so it's always best to see a doctor when you can.

For his part, Fine believes that the improved accuracy in patient diagnosis might be brought about by combining both online and real-life elements in the medical sphere. “In a real-world setting, I could envision MD plus algorithm versus MD alone,” he said. "The algorithms will rely on a clinician to input physical exam findings in a real-world setting, and so the computer algorithm alone could not go head to head with a clinician.” The future may not quite be now... but maybe it will be soon.

Images; Unsplash/Pixabay; Giphy (2)