Got a recent physical affliction? It’s easy to refer to the internet on what that mysterious body ache, abdominal discomfort or sudden loss of appetite could mean.

But how much should you trust these online symptom checkers? General practitioner Dr Shiv Gill from My Health partners Medical Clinic says that online investigation of your health symptoms can be useful initially.

It could help you check if what you have is potentially serious. Dr Gill warns that if you’re in doubt, you should still visit your doctor.

We test the reliability of five online symptom checkers by comparing our results with Dr Gill’s opinion on the symptoms of these five medical conditions.

Online symptom checkers: Should you see a doctor

While online symptom checkers are convenient,
how accurate are they? Image: Corbis

1. THYROID DISEASE
Thyroid disease can be hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism. Dr Gill says that symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, constipation, weight gain or weight loss, feeling cold easily, perspiring easily, irritability, loss of temper, palpitations, and insomnia.

WE TEST: Web MD (www.webmd.com)

  • The website is easy to use. We liked that the site is informative, and that all the conditions are described simply. 
  • However, it was tricky to figure out exactly what we were suffering from. Our symptoms are associated with a range of conditions. Fatigue, excessive sweating were both associated with 20 conditions, one of which was hyperthyroidism. Restlessness or irritability was associated with a condition called thyroid storm, which is different from hyperthyroidism in that there is a marked elevation in body temperature. Unintentional weight gain and weight loss was also associated with 20 conditions, which included hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. 

2. OVARIAN CANCER
Dr Gill warns that this is one of the hardest conditions to diagnose early, as the symptoms are very vague. Bloating, lower abdominal discomfort, irregular periods, or a change in menstrual flow and duration are just some signs to look out for.

WE TEST: Wrong Diagnosis (www.wrongdiagnosis.com)

  • The set-up of the site is quite confusing and not very easy to navigate. You have to trawl through seemingly endless lists of symptoms in order to find what you’re looking for. You have to know exactly what your symptoms are, or you will have trouble finding them. 
  • Clear explanations. It explains the condition very clearly, from symptoms and causes to treatments, complications and more. We found seven causes associated with abdominal discomfort and menstrual irregularities, one of which was ovarian cancer. We added “digestive symptoms” to our main search item and seven conditions showed up, including ovarian cancer. 
  • More information are provided, for a charge. You can select your symptoms from a list, or ask a doctor about your symptoms and get a reply as soon as possible, for a charge. 

3. FIBROMYALGIA
Again, this condition too has very vague symptoms. These include constant pains over different muscle and joint sites, and tiredness which often is diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome or even depression. Fibromyalgia is sometimes associated with other auto immune diseases.

WE TEST: Medicine (www.medicinenet.com

  • Comprehensive description of the disease. This includes an explanation of all the symptoms showed up during our search for fibromyalgia. It even provided a “Fibromyalgia Tender Points Diagram”, which showed specifically where you might be experiencing pain if you suffered from this disease. 
  • Easy to navigate. The information provided wasn’t hard to understand. Under “Pain (Chronic Pain)”, from an A-Z list of symptoms, we found a lengthy and easy-to-understand description, as well as a very long list of possible causes, one of which was fibromyalgia. But fibromyalgia can be easy to miss or misdiagnosed. It shares a few symptoms with other, not-so-serious health conditions like jet lag. 

4. APPENDICITIS
Some signs of appendicitis include nausea, and central peri umbilical pains, which radiate to the right lower side of the abdomen. You may notice some change in bowels, like constipation. The condition is also a marked by a loss of appetite, mild fever and coated tongue.

WE TEST: Everyday Health (www.everydayhealth.com) 

  • Using this site is like having a consultation with a GP in real time. A US emergency physician, teacher and author Stephen Schueler, MD, designed the symptom checker to feel like a real emergency room intake interview.
  • The symptom checker was spot-on and the disease was described quite clearly. We were brought through a series of questions – symptoms, age and gender, preliminary questions about our symptoms, the severity and duration of symptoms, heart rate and blood pressure, and more. After that, we were shown a page that listed the possible causes and treatments your symptoms. Peritonitis, which occurs when appendicitis is untreated in time, was one of four possible causes associated with the symptoms we keyed in. As our symptoms were severe, we were instructed to visit a doctor immediately. There was also a set of special instructions to follow, and a list of tests that might be done when we visited the doctor’s office.

5. CORONARY HEART DISEASE
This is characterised by pain or tightness in the chest, shortness of breath on exertion or when lying down flat at night, and chest pains associated with cold sweat that get worse after meals – this is sometimes misdiagnosed as gastritis or acid reflux.

We test: Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.com

  • Getting the diagnosis is straightforward and simple. We were asked to check a series of boxes describing the severity of pain, methods of relief, and other accompanying symptoms after the initial selection of “Chest Pain” as our symptom.
  • Clear and concise information on a host of diseases. We presented with several heart conditions as possible causes, like angina, pulmonary embolism and pericarditis, which is the swelling and irritation of the pericardium, the membrane surrounding the heart. Gastroesophageal reflux disease and panic disorder were also listed as possible conditions. It even suggests when you should see a doctor.
  • Misdiagnosis is still possible. As heart disease is a very serious condition, it’s not something you’d want to misdiagnose. In this case, as heart disease shares the same symptoms as gastritis and acid reflux disease, it’s easy to assume that what you have does not warrant a visit to the doctor.

Dr Shiv Gill is a general practitioner from My Health Partners Medical Clinic, which is located at 25D Lorong Liput, (S)277735; opening hours Mondays to Fridays 9.00am – 4.30pm and 9.00am -1.00pm on Saturdays. The clinic is open Mondays & Wednesdays from 7.00pm – 9.00pm in the evenings and closed on Sundays & certain Public Holidays. Call 6469 9116 or visit their website for more information on the clinic.

This article was originally published in SimplyHer December 2010.