Cyberchondriacs, step away from the search engine. Online symptom checkers are almost always wrong and should never replace a real doctor, writes Tory Shepherd.
Cyberchondriacs, step away from the search engine. Online symptom checkers are almost always wrong and should never replace a real doctor, writes Tory Shepherd.

Dr Google is like your drunk friend, dramatic and unreliable

OPINION

A mate of mine got a runny nose. It must be corona, she concluded. She had a headache, too. She was struggling to breathe, and her heart had started to race.

It was a hangover, of course. She has a slight allergy to red wine and a tendency to get anxious if she drinks too much of it and then worries about drinking too much of it.

Also, she was trying to work off the shiraz with an early run in the frigid air, which didn't help with the runny nose, the headache, the breathing or the heart rate.

In one sense, we should all be hypochondriacs now. The best advice from Those Who Know is that we should act as though we have the COVID-19 virus and do what we can to stop it spreading. We're also meant to get tested once we get a sniffle, so we can work out if the old corona is zooming around the community, unnoticed.

Now we're all at home more, there's also more opportunity to ask Dr Google about that funny spot or hacking cough or unmentionable rash.

But turning to Dr Google is usually a very bad idea.

Is it a sore throat or syphilis? Picture: iStock
Is it a sore throat or syphilis? Picture: iStock

Even if you stick to the reliable sites, you should absorb the diagnosis of high blood pressure with an extra sprinkle of salt.

Research out this week (based on a study done in the pre-corona times) found online symptom checkers got the diagnoses right just one in three times.

Even when the top-10 results were included, the right diagnosis was only there in six out of 10 searches.

The poor artificial intelligence struggles to cope with our wily human frailties - not just the combinations of symptoms we suffer, but how we're likely to describe them.

The Edith Cowan University work published in the Medical Journal of Australia said the advice given about seeking help tended to be overly cautious, which is good, but could put undue pressure on the health system by telling people to toddle off to hospital when they don't need to. But sometimes it was dangerously lax, effectively telling sick people to have a Bex and a lie down.

A survey last year found most Australians Google health symptoms at least weekly, and about one in three convince themselves they're in trouble. The problems with online health checks are partly due to human error. If you type in "sore throat" and "syphilis", for example, you might get a rather alarming result (not to mention some very disturbing pictures).

A more general search for "sore throat" and "causes" will tell you that you might just have a little infection. Or it could be HIV/AIDS, or cancer.

To stop coronavirus spreading we should all act like we have it. Picture: iStock
To stop coronavirus spreading we should all act like we have it. Picture: iStock

There's also artificial intelligence at play. Google knows where you've been. It tracks you and gives you an answer tailored to you.

So while you might search "headache" and get a very sensible overview from the Mayo Clinic, my friend might get an article on the dangers of too much shiraz.

Meanwhile, there are some people who might go down the Dr Google rabbit hole and end up sourcing health information from celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Pete Evans or the Cookie Monster, instead of sensible sites such as the federal and state health departments, medical journals, universities or institutions for specific issues.

Visiting Dr Google is particularly dangerous at the moment because many Australians are reluctant to visit real doctors in case they run into The Virus.

Maybe it's best to think of Google not as a medical professional but as Librarian Google, who holds plenty of information and might be able to help you find it, but might also be miffed at the amount of noise you make so just points you in the general direction of some stuff.

Or Cab Driver Google, who definitely knows someone who once had something that sounds a bit like what you might have.

If you must go online for medical advice, use reliable sites. Picture: iStock
If you must go online for medical advice, use reliable sites. Picture: iStock

Or Friend Google who, after three champagnes, will tell you everything's going to be great, but at 2am starts crying into their whisky about how you're going to die.

Google is certainly better than the search engines that came before it (although I still have a soft spot for Ask Jeeves, where you put a question to a pompous picture of a valet and humans had input into the answers).

There have been vast improvements, too, in the help you can find online.

Telehealth is booming now, so there really is no excuse to hide from a doctor's appointment.

Lifeline, Beyond Blue and others have critical and easily absorbable information on mental health.

Those sites, as well as 1800 RESPECT for domestic violence victims, also have COVID-19 specific advice available.

Find quality websites with evidence-based advice, and check out alternative explanations before you run to your GP, convinced you have the bubonic plague.

The internet is a tool that can help you put things together or can chuck a real spanner in the works.

In the immortal words of musician Carrie Lucas: "It's Not What You've Got (It's How You Peruse It)" (sic).

Tory Shepherd is a columnist with The Adelaide Advertiser.

Originally published as Dr Google is like your drunk friend - dramatic and unreliable


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