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Seen At 11: Internet Symptom Searches Could End In A Misdiagnosis

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Just about all of us do it, head to the internet to search for a diagnosis for an ache, pain, or sniffle.

As CBS2's Maurice Dubois reported, that information may be causing more harm than good.

Catherin Porter did what many people do, she checked her symptoms on one of the free diagnostic websites.

"Numbness in my arms and hands. It went to my feet," she recalled, "Do I have MS, fibromyalgia?"

It turns out she had none of these.

"They don't say, 'May be pre-menopausal,'" she said.

The odds are against just about anyone getting a correct diagnosis ,according to a recent Harvard University research study. Of the 23 symptom checkers they looked at, a correct diagnosis came up only about one third of the time.

"The 34 percent of correct diagnosis doesn't surprise me at all. That study needs to get out there and lay people need to know that that is the level of accuracy that we're looking at," Dr. Jamé Heskett said.

Dr. Heskett said anyone with a medical condition or symptom they are concerned about should have a real conversation with a real doctor.

"We run into a problem of either people misdiagnosing on the over-diagnosing side, so that they generate a lot of anxiety and angst, or on the non-urgent side when it should be dealt with in an urgent manner," Dr. Heskett said.

Porter went to a neurologist for a battery of tests.

"A lot of unnecessary medical testing that costs the system money, costs the patient money, that causes them more duress and anxiety," Dr. Heskett said.

CBS2 reached out to several symptom checker sites for comment. WebMD said "it's not intended to be a substitute for medical advice," and The Mayo Clinic responded that they are a "measured, learned voice to provide health guidance."

Gina Marie Jones went to her doctor with a computer diagnosis.

"I went to the doctor and I said I have bronchitis and he says no you have allergies," she said.

She also looked up a diagnosis for swollen eyes.

"I have this, I have this," she said.

Again the online diagnosis failed her. She has since learned her lesson.

"It's always good to get professional help so you could get a correct diagnosis sooner rather than later," she said.

There are some advanced symptom checker options that allow patients to actually chat with an on-line doctor. Some are free, some charge a small fee.

The best advice is to talk to your doctor.


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