Info From ‘Dr Google’ Poses Risk: Study

May 17, 2020 Updated: May 17, 2020

Health treatments and diagnosis from the comfort of home are becoming more prevalent in Australia and although at-home treatment is leading to fewer hospital readmissions and deaths, initial diagnoses made online can be risky, new studies have found.

New research published in the Medical Journal of Australia from Edith Cowan University shows close to 40 percent of Australians turn to “Dr Google” for online information to self-treat.

The study analysed 36 international mobile and web-based symptom “checkers” and found they produced the correct diagnosis as the first result just 36 percent of the time, and within the top three results 52 percent of the time.

The research also found the advice provided on when and where to seek health care was accurate 49 percent of the time.

ECU lead author Michella Hill says the online tools can be unreliable and sometimes dangerous, with people acting on the impulses of the “cyberchondria effect”.

Cyberchondria is the experience of heightened anxiety related to medical disorders resulting from online health information seeking

“We’ve all been guilty of being ‘cyberchondriacs’ and googling at the first sign of a niggle or headache,” Hill said in a statement on May 18.

“For people who lack health knowledge, they may think the advice they’re given is accurate or that their condition is not serious when it may be.”

Hill said online information on when and where to seek health care was more accurate than for diagnoses.

Advice for emergency and urgent care cases was appropriate around 60 percent of the time but for non-emergencies, this figure dropped to 30 to 40 percent.

“These sites are not a replacement for going to the doctor, but they can be useful in providing more information once you do have an official diagnosis,” she said.

A lack of government regulation and validation on where information is being sourced on websites was a concern for Hill, along with the a lack of relevant Australian-centric information.

“Generally the triage advice erred on the side of caution, which in some ways is good but can lead to people going to an emergency department when they really don’t need to,” she said.

Meanwhile a study undertaken by the University of Newcastle and Epworth HealthCare found Hospital in the Home treatment could help patients access more health care from home, to free up services and financial strain in hospitals.

Led by Associate Professor Michael Montalto, the study of multi-day hospital inpatient admissions from “principal referrer hospital members” found the proportion of patients who died in hospital was lower (0.3 percent versus 1.4 percent), and readmission within 28 days was less frequent (2.3 percent versus 3.6 percent) when HIH care was included.

“We found that HIH plays an important and growing role in care for patients with a range of hospital diagnoses,” Montalto said in a statement on Monday.

“The challenge for health systems is to expand its role further and, more importantly, to carefully determine clinical areas in which HIH may be useful but is currently unused.”

By Ashlea Witoslawski