Search engines such as Google provide irrelevant information that could lead to incorrect self-diagnosis and treatment, and delay people suffering dangerous illnesses from visiting their doctor, according to a new study. The researchers also suggested the internet was helping to create a new condition, “cyberchondria” – the baseless fuelling of fears and anxiety about common health symptoms.
Google says an extraordinary half a billion searches each month are for health-related information, meaning that millions of Britons could be putting their health at risk. In the first research of its kind, Dr. Guido Zuccon, of the University of Queensland in Australia, assessed the effectiveness of search engines Google and Bing in response to medically focused searches. He 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.
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 Guido Zuccon, University of Queensland, said, “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. If you do not get a clear diagnosis after one search you would likely be tempted to keep searching. 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. He added: “So if you search for something like jaundice you will have a lot of useful results. But our findings suggest it is not the best option for trying to find out what’s wrong with you.”