‘Googling’ your medical symptoms could lead to cyberchondria

When you start feeling unwell, do you immediately ‘Google’ your symptoms and try to work out what’s wrong with you? It could be doing you more harm than good, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology, CSIRO and Vienna University of Technology assessed the effectiveness of Google and Bing for medical-based searches. They found that major internet search engines are providing irrelevant medical information that could lead to wrong self-diagnosis, self-treatment and ultimately possible harm.

Dr Guido Zuccon from QUT said “people commonly turn to ‘Dr Google’ to self-diagnose illnesses or ailments. But our results revealed only about three of the first 10 results were highly useful for self-diagnosis and only half of the top 10 were somewhat relevant to the self-diagnosis of the medical condition”.

The researchers showed participants medically-accurate images of common conditions like alopecia, jaundice and psoriasis and asked what the participant would search for in an attempt to diagnose it.

For jaundice, queries including “yellow eyes”, “eye illness”, “white part of the eye turned green” were searched for.

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“Because on average only three of the first 10 results were highly useful, people either keep searching or they get the wrong advice which can be potentially harmful for someone’s health,” Dr Zuccon said.

He warned it was also possible those seeking to self-diagnose online would experience “cyberchondria” – where subsequent searches could escalate concerns.

“If you don’t get a clear diagnosis after one search you would likely be tempted to keep searching,” Dr Zuccon said.

“So if you had searched for the symptoms of something like a bad head cold, you could end up thinking you had something far more serious, like an issue with the brain.

Dr Zuccon said search engines performed effectively if the name of the illness was already known.

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“They are great for providing a wealth of information about illnesses and diseases, so if you search for something like jaundice you’ll have a lot of useful results,” he said.

“But our findings suggest it is not the best option for trying to find out what’s wrong with you”.


Do you go online to ‘Google’ you medical symptoms? How much faith do you put in the internet search engines when you’re trying to self-diagnose a medical problem?