The introduction of the internet over the last two decades has altered nearly every aspect of our lives. Knowledge is available almost instantaneously after a quick google or bing search. It should not be a surprise to anyone that websites such as WebMD and Doc Response, which serve as symptom checkers, were created. However, a Harvard Medical School study recently released data demonstrating that these sites should not be viewed as replacements for doctors. Researchers, after examining more than twenty of these sites, found that about one-third of them provided the correct diagnosis as the first result for users. Around fifty percent provided the correct diagnosis within their first three suggestions. However, less than sixty percent listed the correct diagnosis in the first twenty results.

Dr. Mehrotra, who was one of the principal authors of the study, advocates caution when on these sites. By no means should these websites serve as replacements for an in-person evaluation from a doctor says Mehrota.

More than 100 million Americans are active users on these types of sites, but data regarding the number of people who utilize them in lieu of doctors is not available. The diagnostic process on these sites is similar to those you will find in nurse triage phone services.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School used the symptoms of nearly fifty patients vignettes that are typically utilized to help train students. The Mayo Clinic’s online tool provided the correct diagnosis as the first result less than one-fifth of the time. Dr. John Wilkinson, who is working to improve this online tool for the Mayo Clinic, says that the tool provides the user with medical research and points them to talk to a doctor.

In case you are wondering about the diagnosis accuracy of doctors, this number stands at about 85 to 90 percent, many-fold higher than that of the online services.