Most of the Time, Dr. Google Has No Idea What Ails You

Google doesn't know as much about your medical history as your doctor. smolaw/Shutterstock

Everyone likes a quick medical diagnosis. And no one delivers one faster than Google. Just rattle off your symptoms in a search window — stiff neck, headache, bit of a fever — and congratulations, you've got . . .. meningitis?

Now you can add heart palpitations and anxiety to your symptoms. But before you Google, "how to make your last will and testament," know this: If there was a real Dr. Google, he would have had his license to practice taken away years ago. Because, as a new study from Australia's Edith Cowan University points out, he's wrong most of the time.

Publishing their work this month in the Medical Journal of Australia, researchers looked at 36 mobile and web-based symptom checkers. They found the sites were right — producing the correct diagnosis as the first result — a mere 36% of the time. Online symptom checkers were also spotty when it came to finding the right diagnosis within the top three results, with a rate of 52%. For what it's worth, the same sites did manage to get the right diagnosis in their top 10 results 58% of the time.

That could be a problem for a society that increasingly leans on Google for health advice. According to the search giant, about 7% of the queries it receives are health-related, which works out to about 70,000 asks-per-minute.

And the answers are mostly wrong.

"While it may be tempting to use these tools to find out what may be causing your symptoms, most of the time they are unreliable at best and can be dangerous at worst," lead author Michela Hill, a Master's student at Edith Cowan University, notes in a press release.

The most popular health sites — identified by researchers using, surprise, surprise, Google search — simply don't know enough facts about the patient in question to make an accurate diagnosis, foremost among them, our medical history.

And, since the sites don't carry a disclaimer like, "For entertainment purposes only," users are frequently left with a false sense of security, or — depending on the diagnosis — anxiety.

In fact, the only diagnosis Doc Google gets right 100% of the time is cyberchondria — a condition that has us turning to Google for medical advice that often makes us feel even worse.

"We've all been guilty of being 'cyberchondriacs' and googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache," Hill explains. "But the reality is these websites and apps should be viewed very cautiously as they do not look at the whole picture — they don't know your medical history or other symptoms.

"For people who lack health knowledge, they may think the advice they're given is accurate or that their condition is not serious when it may be."

There's also the question of how exactly these sites formulate a diagnosis, especially considering they're not regulated or even monitored by government bodies.

"There is no real transparency or validation around how these sites are acquiring their data," Hill adds.

That's not to say online symptoms checkers don't play a role in the health of a society. As a means of monitoring viral outbreaks, they're already proving instrumental.

"We're also seeing symptom checkers being used to good effect with the current COVID-19 pandemic," Hill explains. "For example, the UK's National Health Service is using these tools to monitor symptoms and potential 'hot spot' locations for this disease on a national basis."

But if you're experiencing real pain or discomfort, the best advice Doc Google could offer would be to go and see a real doctor.