Consumers are increasingly searching their symptoms online and getting misleading results, but not necessarily because Dr Google is wrong.
Five per cent of all Google searches a month are now health-related, the search giant has reported.
The problem with this trend is that search results on popular search engines Google and Bing are often unreliable simply because we don’t know how to use them correctly, researchers have claimed in a recent study published online.
“Current search engines are great for providing a wealth of information about illnesses and diseases, if you can clearly name these in your queries,” said lead author Dr Guido Zuccon of Queensland University of Technology.
“However, they should be used with care, as if your query is poor and ambiguous, then it is unlikely the search engine will return correct results.”
For example, in Dr Zuccon’s study, he and his colleagues displayed photos of common conditions like alopecia (“baldness in multiple spots”), jaundice (“yellow eyes”) and psoriasis (“red dry skin”) and tested for what participants searched.
Only three of the first 10 results were highly useful based on what the participants typed in, the study found.
Dangerously, the majority may not even be cross-checking what they find with their doctor at all.
In the US, a third (35 per cent) searched online for a diagnosis, and of that group 59 per cent said a medical expert did not confirm their suspicion, the Pew Research Centre reported in 2012.
How to consult Dr Google better
The message seems to be that you can use Dr Google, so long as you consult the experts as well.
Consumers should rely on GPs, the emergency department and other experts first, Dr Zuccon said.
Once you have been diagnosed, Dr Google can be used with “high confidence” to simply find out more about what the experts have already told you, he said.
“Our research has shown that, with the current search engines, if you attempt to self diagnose yourself, you often end up finding incorrect or misleading information, which indeed could be detrimental to your health,” Dr Zuccon said.
“From our experience and research, we believe that search engines can be used with high confidence to find information about a medical condition you know to have and for which you want to know more.”
Be sure to only read information published on respected websites, such as:
Trusting the web is still risky
“The first risk is that you can talk yourself into almost anything,” Australian Psychological Society member Dr Bob Montgomery previously told The New Daily.
“It’s legitimate to take steps and have concern but the worst thing you can do is think ‘I will resolve my anxiety by looking on the internet’.
“There’s a lot of absolute garbage on the internet.”