The Doctor is ... YOU! Online Medical Symptom Checkers Examined

I'm a wreck. I think I might have osteomyelitis, or peripheral neuropathy, or even retrocalcaneal bursitis. I just hope it's not tarsal tunnel syndrome.

I'm also overstressed, overweight, losing my hearing and not sleeping enough. Even worse, I have a low IQ and my "real" age (taking into account my bad habits and so on) is 10 years older than my actual age.

Who needs doctors anymore? We've got the Web.

Yup, I learned all this stuff from visiting online health sites. There are dozens of them out there, and they all promise to help figure out what ails you. Of course, they all feature prominent disclaimers emphasizing that they should be used for information purposes only and you should see a medical professional for any real diagnoses.

But why bother? Even if you could schedule an appointment within the next three months (by which time the symptoms have usually disappeared ... or you have), it's much easier to type in few search terms or answer a few questions and get a list of potential causes of your symptoms.

And, people being people, you'll probably focus on the worst-sounding ailment and decide it's what you have. That's called "cyberchondria" by a couple of Microsoft researchers who have studied health-related search behavior. In their research paper, Ryen White and Eric Horvitz declared, "The Web has the potential to increase the anxieties of people who have little or no medical training, especially when Web search is employed as a diagnostic procedure."

No kidding. If I didn't suffer from anxiety before, I surely do now. Later, I'm going to take an online test to be certain.

Web consultation

My own self-diagnosis research wasn't scientific like Microsoft's. I just checked out five of the most popular (according to Google) health sites to see if they could tell me what's causing pain in my foot. (The sites are presented in the order I tested them.)

But I cheated. I know what I have, because a doctor told me. So I confess, I don't really believe I might have all those conditions listed above -- but I might have believed that if Doc hadn't told me I had plantar fasciitis. That's medical-speak for a strain of the fibrous tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot from heel to toe.

So, to gauge the effectiveness of online health sites, I used that example to focus on "symptom checkers" that typically let you indicate what part of the body is causing you problems and answer some questions to narrow down the list of possible causes.

The results weren't very encouraging. Some sites winnowed possibilities down to a manageable number that included plantar fasciitis, as shown in this video. But some didn't. And the logic underpinning the decision-tree process sometimes seemed absurd.

Being a layperson (with a low IQ, remember), I asked some bona-fide medical professionals to take a look at the sites and provide their assessments. Helping me analyze the symptom checkers were Dr. Laura Beaty, a family practice physician at Alliance Primary Care in Atlanta; Dr. Andy Spooner, a general practitioner with a specialty in pediatrics at Cincinnati General Hospital; and Dr. Viren Bavishi, a pediatrician at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare in Franklin, Wis.

Dr. Bavishi said symptom checkers can be a good resource, but their usefulness varies on a case-by-case basis depending on what a patient's symptoms are, so he didn't want to compare them. One common problem he found: "There's a spectrum on what information they're giving you. It could be a lack of information depending on the illness, or it could be far too much [information] for what we're concerned about."

He would prefer that patients come in first so he can figure out what's going on, and then these sites could be "a great adjunct as an education resource. That's where I found it to be useful." But when the sites are consulted first, "I think it causes, in some cases, more stress and anxiety because people end up getting fixated on the worst-case scenario."

"Some of these symptom checkers are great," he said, "but it does sometimes leave out some of the questions or things that we may ask. Some variables that I think are important aren't accounted for."

Dr. Beaty and Dr. Spooner took my approach and worked through each of the sites to evaluate them individually. I conducted my own analysis before speaking to them.

Here's what we found.

Subscribe to the The Advisor Newsletter

Comments