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Study shows just how bad apps are at guessing your illness

Have you ever come down with a case of “Googleitis?” This happens when you spend hours self-diagnosing health symptoms online using Google or a symptom-checker and ending up with a result like “cancer” or something worse.

Even though it can be an anxiety-inducing ordeal, most of the time you’re perfectly fine. Symptom checkers don’t have a real doctor running them, and they can’t account for biological nuances in your body, either. And in the age of COVID-19, overzealous checking can lead to dangerous health risks. Tap or click here to see how to actually tell if you have COVID-19.

It looks like the only thing that many symptom-checking apps are giving people is anxiety. A group of Australian researchers found that symptom-checker apps not only miss the mark more than half the time, they also can misinform users on their actual treatment options. Here’s why.

Symptom: light headache. Diagnosis: Brain cancer, meningitis, mad cow disease.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that we live in an age that makes hypochondria all too easy. Thanks to COVID-19, people are cleaning their surroundings more than ever and paying attention to even the smallest signs of illness.

As a result, symptom-checking apps have seen an explosion in popularity. These programs existed well before the pandemic blew up, but their usage has never been higher. In the last week alone, WebMD received more than 31 million visitors, which is more than the entire population of New York City!

As convenient as symptom-checker apps are, they may actually be contributing to psychological stress in a significant way. According to new reports from the Medical Journal of Australia, several of the most popular symptom-checker apps correctly diagnose a person’s symptoms on the first try only about 36% of the time.

In other words, these apps are wrong about 64% of the time. That means whenever you fearfully lookup that pressure in your chest or sore throat, the results you’re getting might not even be accurate.

The researchers obtained their results by running several health scenarios through the apps, which included products developed by Drugs.com, the Mayo Clinic, and WebMD. The illnesses ranged from severe to mild, and more than 1,000 tests were performed for accuracy.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that apps with AI algorithms or triage features performed significantly better than their peers. They also found that expanding health condition results to the “top 3” or “top 10” would provide an accurate diagnosis more frequently, but severe results like cancer were still quite common.

Why do they always think I have cancer? What can I do for an accurate diagnosis?

Symptom-checker apps lack much of a Doctor’s nuanced understanding of medicine, and will often list exotic or deadly results out of an abundance of caution.

This blog post by Dr. David Craig illustrates the point perfectly. In his words, most symptoms are common, while bad diagnoses are rare. Add in the fact that cancer can cause nearly every symptom you can think of, and you have a recipe for paranoia.

As Dr. Craig sarcastically writes, the algorithm determines that “…blood when you wipe is either cancer or a virus that mostly affects babies.” This completely ignores mundane conditions that cause this symptom, such as hemorrhoids or constipation. To a doctor, he says, symptom-checker results are a lot like seeing this:

When you put it this way, it all looks pretty silly, doesn’t it? You can rest easy — you probably don’t have cancer, let alone COVID-19, for that matter.

Still, if you are experiencing health symptoms of any kind, a genuine doctor’s appointment is the best way to see what’s going on.

With the coronavirus still circulating, it’s worth contacting your primary care provider to see if they offer telemedicine options. That way, you can talk to a doctor without risking viral exposure. Tap or click here to see why telemedicine is the future of healthcare.

And for COVID-19 in particular, there are several online health services that provide virtual meetings where you can discuss possible symptoms and treatment options. Tap or click here to see how they work.

Symptom-checker apps can be useful for finding basic information or finding topics to discuss with your doctor, but they shouldn’t be your primary point of contact. We understand the temptation, since healthcare and doctor visits can be expensive.

But there’s no substitute for expertise. And in the world of healthcare, we need that now more than ever. Tap or click here to see the top COVID-19 myths debunked.

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