Feeling a little peaky? Online symptom checkers may do more harm than good


If you think that every twinge is something sinister, it could be that you habitually check out your symptoms using a free online symptom checker.

We have all turned into citizen diagnosticians thanks to “Doctor Google”. But citizen beware, online symptom checking could cause you to feel much worse.

Research conducted by Edith Cowan University and published in the Medical Journal of Australia recently evaluated 36 online symptom checkers with a range of clinical vignettes (cases). The study found that the correct diagnosis was listed first only one third of the time and appeared within the top three results only 52% of the time. Triage advice was appropriate less than half of the time.

It is well known that the quality of information on the internet varies wildly. Online symptom checkers are no different. They ask users to list their symptoms before offering possible diagnoses. Triage advice is about whether – or how quickly – the user should see a doctor or go to the emergency department.

If an online symptom checker provides a serious but incorrect diagnosis it may send you rushing to the doctor, increasing the drain on already over-burdened family doctors. But the worst outcome of online symptom checkers, the authors say, is to not be able to identify a disease correctly than to get an inaccurate diagnosis.

Emergency or benign ache?

Most of the time online symptom checkers and triage advice recommend more urgent care than is required. This is because their diagnostic accuracy is limited by their programming and how information is presented. Thanks to their complex algorithms, the more symptoms entered the less useful ‘diagnosis’.

If you search for ‘headache’, for example, the chances are you’ll find some form of tumour in the list or the online symptom checker may suggest that your perpetual fatigue could be a sign of cancer.


If you are prone to cyberchondria – the official name for anxiety-driven habitual online symptom checking. Resisting temptation to look up your symptoms could protect you from unreliable results, but self-diagnosing your symptoms could mean overlooking a potentially dangerous disease.

The authors concluded that free online symptom checkers may provide unsuitable advice and not facilitate the right health care at the right time.

For more information, see the original article in the Medical Journal of Australia: 

Source: Michella G Hill, Moira Sim and Brennen Mills. The quality of diagnosis and triage advice provided by free online symptom checkers and apps in Australia. Med J Aust 2020; 212:11 (514-519). doi: 10.5694/mja2.50600

What are your experiences with free online symptom checkers?

Please comment below.


Exercise is good for depression and physical illness


Exercise can have an enormous impact on your mood. In fact, it is thought that  exercise is beneficial enough to be recommended as an intervention in combination with other treatment.

But is exercise as effective for depressive symptoms when you also have a physical illness?

A review published recently in Frontiers in Psychiatry showed that exercise improved both the depressive symptoms and the underlying physical condition for a range of physical illnesses including:

Breast cancer
Prostate cancer
Cardiovascular disease
Coronary heart disease
Heart failure
Multiple sclerosis
Parkinson’s disease
Ankylosing spondylitis
Traumatic brain injury
Acute leukemia
Lupus erythematodes

Previously, studies have  shown that the beneficial effects of exercise are shown to be similar to treatment with medication up to one year. This means that exercise can be considered as a treatment option without the common side-effects of psychotropic medication.

Exercise helps chronic depression by increasing serotonin (which helps your brain regulate mood, sleep and appetite) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which helps neurons to grow) and increases your level of endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.

So exercise therapy could be a vital component of your treatment plan. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist.

Does exercise help you with depression?

Tell us what you think in the comments below.


1.         Daley A. Exercise and Depression: A Review of Reviews. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings 2008;15:140.

2.         Hoffman BM BM, Craighead WE, Sherwood A, Doraiswamy PM, Coons MJ, . Exercise and pharmacotherapy in patients with major depression: one-year follow-up of the SMILE study. Psychosomatic Medicine 2011; 73:127–33.

3.         Roeh A, Kirchner SK, Malchow B, et al. Depression in somatic disorders: is there a beneficial effect of exercise? Frontiers in Psychiatry 2019;10.