How Trustworthy Are Online Symptom Checkers?

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It’s a tale as old as the internet — you develop health symptoms and hop on Dr. Google to see what could be wrong. The online symptom checker returns dire results, sending you into a panic. Before you know it, the stress makes you feel even worse.

However, you’ve undoubtedly heard you can’t believe everything you read online, including health information. What drives people to use internet tools for self-diagnosis and how can they do so without unnecessary mental distress? How trustworthy are online symptom trackers and what should you do with the results?

What Drives People to Online Symptom Checkers? 

People turn to online symptom checkers for various reasons. Some want to manage their health better and seek the best self-care techniques for treating known health issues. Others develop new symptoms and want to know if they should see a doctor. However, the financial reality of seeking care influences many.

Millions of Americans struggle with medical debt, even those with coverage. Unfortunately, receiving an accurate diagnosis can take dozens of appointments, each with a separate copay. The problem compounds if you don’t have an easily recognizable condition — especially if you’re female or a member of a marginalized group, as physician bias can further complicate the process.

Self-diagnosis is fast and free — you don’t even need to take time away from work. Unfortunately, it may not be accurate. The most trustworthy online symptom trackers return a laundry list of results, with further professional testing necessary to narrow down the correct diagnosis. Furthermore, such applications are only as good as those who program them.

Common Issues With Online Symptom Checkers 

One issue with online symptom checkers is some platforms may require users to divulge personal information that opens their vulnerability to cyberattacks. For example, the recent CISA Zeppelin ransomware attack targeted health care systems intending to steal cryptocurrency.

Another area for improvement is information accuracy. Researchers learn more about the causes and treatments for various conditions daily, but updating databases and distributing that data to the public takes time. Some outdated advice — such as using baking soda to treat a UTI — can worsen existing conditions. Instead of solving one problem, you create a secondary issue.

Finally, there’s the psychological component. Say you find a reliable online symptom checker and type in “headaches.” “Brain cancer” invariably makes the list of possible causes. No matter how much you might joke, “It’s not a tum-mah,” in your best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, that fear will nag you. Stress makes nearly any symptom worse, especially headaches and gastrointestinal issues. A vicious cycle of worsening pain and worry results until you see a doctor.

The problem compounds if you’re one of the many Americans who struggle to afford care. Your unmet concerns could even trigger maladaptive coping mechanisms like substance abuse that result in health woes, even if the original problem was easily treatable.

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Using Online Symptom Checkers Responsibly

Using online symptom checkers responsibly requires mindfulness, intention and knowledge of self. If you know your negativity bias is so strong you will gravitate toward the worst-case scenario, you might avoid these tools in the first place. People received accurate diagnoses long before the internet’s invention.

If you choose to use these tools, treat them as part of the health care puzzle, not a complete answer. Print out your results and share them with your doctor — they may hasten the diagnostic process. Bring an advocate — such as a friend or relative — to your appointment to prevent medical gaslighting and assist in recalling critical details you might forget when under stress.

Are Online Symptom Checkers Trustworthy? 

Online symptom checkers can play a role in helping health care professionals diagnose disorders. However, these tools cannot do the job of medical supervision and often cause undue panic among users.

Be aware of the dangers of online symptom trackers. Learn how to use them responsibly as part of a comprehensive care plan you establish with your doctor’s help. 

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