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Calling ‘Dr. Google’ not usually a good idea

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When you’re faced with a sudden illness or scary new physical symptom, a frantic search of medical websites and online symptom-checking tools can be hard to resist. However, the diagnoses these sources come up with are wrong much more often than right, research shows.

University researchers in Australia recently analyzed 36 international mobile and web-based symptom checkers. They found that the correct diagnosis was produced as the first result just 36% of the time, and the correct diagnosis appeared as the second or third result a slightly better 52% of the time.

The research also found that online advice about when and where to seek the appropriate medical care based on any possible diagnosis the sites offered was accurate 49% of the time.

These results mirror a large study previously conducted in the U.S. by Harvard Medical School, which found that online symptom checkers – even from highly respected medical sources like the Mayo Clinic – were correct in their diagnosis in only about a third of cases.

It has been estimated that health-related searches on Google total approximately 70,000 every minute, with as many as half of adults looking for diagnostic answers online at some point.

Michella Hill of Edith Cowan University, the Australian study’s lead author, noted that these findings should make people hesitate before they start typing symptoms into their search bars.  

“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,” Hill said.

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