Turns Out Doctors Are Better at Medicine Than the Internet

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A woman consulting the website Google, which is not a doctor.Photo: Twinpix/Getty Images/Cultura Exclusive

Are you sitting down? Here is some news that will rattle you to your core: When it comes to figuring out health problems, the internet is less accurate than living, breathing doctors with bona fide medical degrees.

That’s the earth-shattering finding of a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine that compared Dr. Google to actual doctors head-to-head for the first time.

The research team from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital sent 45 hypothetical patient “vignettes,” containing medical history and a list of symptoms, to 234 physicians and 23 online symptom checkers including those from WebMD and the Mayo Clinic. A third of the cases were serious, another third were moderate, and the rest only required minimal levels of care. Nineteen of them described uncommon conditions while the others were commonly diagnosed problems.

The authors found that doctors listed the correct diagnosis first 72 percent of the time compared to 34 percent for the sites and apps. When they looked at the top three answers, doctors still had an advantage of 84 percent versus 51 percent. Reuters explains that the doctors “also got it right more often for the more serious conditions and the more uncommon diagnoses, while computer algorithms were better at spotting less serious conditions and more common diagnoses.”

It may be disconcerting that MDs got it wrong 28 percent of the time in this study, but remember that they couldn’t examine the patients or get blood tests, they just had their files.

As tempting as it may be to scour the web for an answer (and about a third of U.S. adults said they’ve done so, which sounds low, honestly), sometimes it sends you in a downward spiral of heightened health anxiety, a.k.a. cyberchondria. Doctors have said that all of the Googling has not only stressed people out unnecessarily but has also led to them spending more time and resources examining minor problems.

If you’re really worried about something, you can use this old-fashioned thing called the telephone to make an appointment with a physician.

Doctors Really, Really Want You to Stop Googling Your Symptoms