Researchers advise caution in using the internet to diagnose medical conditions

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A recent study has shown that the internet is not always a reliable method for diagnosing medical conditions. People often visit popular online symptom checkers such as Mayo Clinic and WebMD to check symptoms of both common and uncommon conditions, but researchers have warned that the tools used on such websites are frequently wrong. They also stated that the level of accuracy for online symptom checkers can vary.

The study, which was conducted by Harvard Medical School, looked at over 20 online symptoms checkers from the US, UK, Poland and the Netherlands, including Mayo Clinic and WebMD. The study included 45 people who were evaluated by the online symptom checkers in addition to being diagnosed by a medical doctor. Research indicated that 15 of the 45 people needed emergency care while another 15 needed non-emergency treatment. The rest were found to have conditions that could be self-treated.

The study looked at both common and uncommon conditions, with the majority of cases being common. While the accuracy of the advice provided by the online symptom checkers varied, none of the sites were completely accurate. Researchers found that the websites were only correct about one-third of the time, with the majority of advice being inaccurate.

Results from the study have led to researchers issuing a warning to those using online symptom checkers to diagnose medical conditions.

“Our results imply that in many cases symptom checkers can give the user a sense of possible diagnoses but also provide a note of caution, as the tools are frequently wrong and the triage advice overly cautious,” researchers said.

The study also looked at how accurate websites were on advising patients as to whether or not they should seek attention from a medical professional. Results showed that online symptom checkers provided appropriate advice in this area 57% of the time while four of the websites Symcat, Isabel, iTriage and Symptomate, always advised patients to seek medical attention.


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