Two-in-three people are misdiagnosed after turning to ‘Dr Google’ with their symptoms, new research shows.
Online symptom checkers got the right illness just 36 per cent of the time, and placed it in the top three in only 52 per cent of cases.
Warnings to visit health services were also inappropriate in more than half of cases examined, according to the study.
It comes as thousands turn to the internet to diagnose everything from stomach pains to a slight cough as they avoid hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic.
NHS 111 uses digital questionnaires to help users identify their illness, and launched a platform for diagnosing Covid-19 which asks whether you have a high temperature or new continuous cough.
Loss of taste or smell was added to the warning signs for Covid-19 today, weeks after scientists and health officials said it was a symptom of the virus.
Online symptom checkers were right in just 36 per cent of cases, study by researchers at Edith Cowan University has found
NHS 111 uses online questionnaires to diagnose illnesses including coronavirus. These were not tested during the study
As many as 36 international web-based symptom checkers were analysed by researchers at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, during the study.
Lead author Michella Hill warned these were no replacement for a doctor as they may provide a false sense of security.
‘We’ve all been guilty of being “cyberchondriacs”‘ and googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache,’ she said.
‘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.’
The research, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, also found the international websites do not have local disease in their database. In Australia, they could not diagnose Ross River Fever and Hendra virus.
Advice to seek medical attentions for emergencies was only appropriate in 60 per cent of cases, they said based on the data.
And advice for non-emergencies was only appropriate in 30 to 40 per cent of cases.
‘Generally the triage erred on the side of caution,’ said Ms Hill, ‘which in some ways is good – but can lead to people going to an emergency department when they really don’t need to.’
Only 916,581 emergency department visits were recorded in the month that Britain’s coronavirus crisis peaked – the first time on record the number has dipped below one million
Coronavirus diagnosis tools have been deployed online to take pressure off oversubscribed health services, and the study author said these have been used to ‘good effect’.
- New continuous cough
- High temperature
- Loss of taste and/or smell
Source: NHS England
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.
Users are asked to fill in their symptoms and then, if it is thought they may have coronavirus, are asked to self-isolate. Key workers with symptoms are asked to book tests for the virus.
Covid Symptom tracker is another that has attempted to map the spread of the outbreak by asking people to self-report their symptoms.
It has not, however, diagnosed what disease that person may be suffering.
Britons consulted health checkers more than 100 million times in 2019, a number that is expected to rise significantly this year.
Hospital attendance has fallen to the lowest point since records began in the UK, as patients with potentially fatal conditions stay away due to the pandemic.
A&E departments are seeing fewer visitors than ever because people are afraid to go to hospitals in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, doctors say
Visits to A&E dropped 57 per cent in April to less than a million from 2.1 million at the same time last year.
And emergency admissions slid 39 per cent in April to 326,581 from 535,226 last year.
NHS England has called for patients to keep seeking medical care, and warned hospitals may be inundated with patients suffering from other conditions following the pandemic.
The government added loss of taste or smell, known as anosmia, to its list of coronavirus symptoms today.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said officials hope adding the symptom to the list will help medics to detect two per cent more patients.
‘With a cough or fever, sensitivity was around 91 per cent,’ he said in a telephone briefing this morning. ‘By adding anosmia, in terms of case pick-up, we think that might go to 93 per cent.’
The decision comes after ministers were last week warned that as many as one in four patients are unaware they have COVID-19 because they don’t get a cough or fever, but do suffer from anosmia or other less well known signs.
Since the outbreak began 34,636 people have died of the disease and 243,695 have tested positive.