WebMD's Symptom Checker Should Probably Be Illegal

I consider myself a bit of a hypochondriac. But a well-intentioned one. I’m not a hypochondriac who fakes illness to get out of work. I’m a hypochondriac who expects the worst and therefore assumes that every pain or ache I’m experiencing is some tropical disease. Therefore, I should not be allowed access to WebMD’s Symptom Checker.

In theory, WebMD’s Symptom Checker is a useful tool. You click on the part of your body where you’re experiencing pain and then you elaborate a bit on your symptoms and it spits out a list of possible ailments. This would be useful, expect for the fact that the illnesses the Symptom Checker says you probably have are usually some sort of life-threatening condition. Therefore, the Symptom Checker goes from being helpful to scary very quickly.

Take today for example. I have some sort of “itis” as Chris and I call it. An “itis” is when you have some unidentified illness but you’re not sure what it is. I have a sore throat, body aches, possibly a fever, and some really weird cramp-y pain thing in the top part of my stomach right under my ribs. I was also feeling nauseous all day. I should have just made some tea and taken a nap. Instead I went right to the WebMD Symptom Checker, which promptly told me I have some form of stomach cancer or other degenerative intestinal disease. Since I already had this thought in my head, I was not comforted. The Symptom Checker added to the fuel to my anxiety fire.

Luckily there’s also another part of my brain that holds on to some form of rational thought and logical reasoning, so I was able to realize that I was probably just dehydrated, overtired, or maybe had some run-of-the-mill virus. But seriously, WebMD has never aided in a diagnosis. It has only aided in my anxiety level.

A few months ago I had shortness of breath and WebMD told me I had asthma. I made an appointment with my doctor. She ran some tests. I don’t have asthma. I was dumbfounded and a little disappointed. I was already picturing carrying around an inhaler and having an excuse not to participate in beach volleyball games (“I’d totally play but I have asthma…yeah…it gets bad sometimes….I’ll just sit this one out.”) and other sports.

“But…but…are you sure? Like, I’m pretty positive I have asthma.”

“Lauren, we just did a lung function test. Your lungs are perfectly healthy. You don’t have asthma. Trust me.”

“But, WebMD told me I do!”

I couldn’t believe I said it but I did. She laughed.

“If you only knew how many people came in with a diagnosis they got from WebMD. Let’s just say that WebMD isn’t always right. That’s why you see a real doctor. You’re stressed and you probably have some sinus issues. You don’t have asthma.”

I argued for a few more minutes. She wasn’t budging. I left without an inhaler. No excuse about why I don’t want to showcase my lack of athletic ability at BBQs or family reunions. Thanks for nothing, WebMD. Guess I’m stuck allowing the game winning goal again in backyard soccer.

These two instances are why I feel that WebMD is basically useless and sometimes detrimental to society. In fact, I  just deleted the WebMD app off my phone the other day. It’s over between us.

Are you a self-diagnoser like me? Are you buying what WebMD is selling or have you also been led astray?

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  1. I have definitely been guilty of this before. It’s hard not to automatically assume the worst thing possible is wrong with you.
    I think the Symptom Checker could be a great resource it is just used and abused in the wrong way. The whole WebMD website is a great tool especially for treating minor things at home or learning about alternate care choices, but like anything if it isn’t used in the right way it can go bad.

  2. I know this is an old article but it was one of the first Google results when typing in the search bar; “webmd symptom checker is useless”. I must say that although I don’t think it should go as far as to be illegal, it is definitely pretty much useless. It can give you 40 different possible illnesses and the top results are usually the most severe possibility imaginable. I once tried to argue with my doctor that I was having mini heart attacks at night but really, and my doctor knew right away, that it was GERD from too many cups of coffee during the day. I was thinking, “He didn’t listen to anything I said, what I quack, time to find a new doctor”. As you mentioned, the rational part of me listened to him and so I cut back on the coffee and that was that. Chest pain free. Fortunately he was right the whole time and I decided he was the smartest doctor ever after that, haha.

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