We’re all guilty of seeking advice from Dr. Google before making an appointment with our own doctor, but just how reliable is the medical information out there on the web? 

As part of our ‘Paging Dr. Google’ series, we’ve asked Clinical Lead at Treated.com, Dr Daniel Atkinson to review the advice served up by Dr. Google for five of the UK’s most searched health concerns, revealing some surprising results concerning accuracy and trustworthiness. 

Out of a possible 500 points, here’s how each query scored based on the quality of advice on individual pages featured within the first page of search results:

1. Is pneumonia contagious? 355 points

2. Signs of endometriosis? 344 points

3. Do I need antibiotics for tonsillitis? 333 points

4. Signs of high blood pressure? 301 points

5. How to get rid of a stomach ache? 238 points

Paging Dr. Google: How the Search Results Stacked Up

We asked “Does this article contain 100% correct information?” for a possible score of 100 for accuracy.

Is pneumonia contagious? 86 points

Do I need antibiotics for tonsillitis? 81 points

Signs of endometriosis? 78 points

Signs of high blood pressure? 75 points

How to get rid of a stomach ache? 48 points 

Interestingly, advice relating to stomach aches scored less than half of the available points, indicating that the advice served by Google for this query was more likely to be unreliable than reliable. 

We can also see how some of the advice provided around endometriosis and high blood pressure could be misleading. 

  • We asked “Does this article answer the question that the user was searching for in full, in your opinion?” for a possible score of 100.

Is pneumonia contagious? 72 points

Do I need antibiotics for tonsillitis? 43 points

Signs of endometriosis? 43 points

Signs of high blood pressure? 43 points

How to get rid of a stomach ache? 39 points 

This section saw some of the lowest scores, averaging just 48% accuracy across the five search queries, indicating that whilst this information is present on the web, it isn’t nearly as in-depth as you would get from a qualified medical professional. 

  • We asked “Does this article advise that the reader should speak to their doctor?” for a possible score of 100.

Is pneumonia contagious? 87 points

Signs of high blood pressure? 82 points

How to get rid of a stomach ache? 77 points 

Do I need antibiotics for tonsillitis? 73 points  

Signs of endometriosis? 71 points

It was encouraging to see 23 out of the 50 articles signpost users in the direction of a qualified medical professional, but we still found that 54% of articles in the study failed to do this properly

It was particularly interesting to note the low score here for articles showing up for ‘Signs of endometriosis’. Just 4 out of the 10 articles advised that the reader seek the advice of a doctor.   

  • We asked “Is the author of this article verified and trusted?” for a possible score of 100.

Do I need antibiotics for tonsillitis? 55 points  

Signs of high blood pressure? 42 points

Is pneumonia contagious? 51 points

Signs of endometriosis? 51 points

How to get rid of a stomach ache? 28 points 

We classified a trusted author as the NHS or equivalent, so the study showed that Google was choosing to include results from untrusted or unverified sources. For example, just 40% of results for “Signs of endometriosis” were from trusted and verified sources. 

  • We asked “Does the article contain any health claims or advice that you would or would not recommend ” for a possible score of 100 for the inclusion of recommended advice.

Signs of endometriosis? 100 points

Is pneumonia contagious? 91 points 

Do I need antibiotics for tonsillitis? 81 points

Signs of high blood pressure? 59 points

How to get rid of a stomach ache? 46 points

It was encouraging to see the high scores for this part of the study, but some of the advice for high blood pressure and stomach aches appeared to be questionable and, as such, scored fairly low on this part of the study. For example, 60% of the articles about stomach aches and 40% of articles about high blood pressure contained information that would not be recommended by our doctor. 

So, is it ever safe to search for your symptoms using a search engine?

After reviewing the search results for each health concern, we asked Dr. Atkinson for his view on consulting Dr. Google rather than your GP. 

“If you’re going to see a doctor anyway, you’re going to end up getting the advice you need (or if necessary, a referral); so Googling symptoms beforehand or not shouldn’t make a difference to the treatment (if required) you get. 

“On the one hand, Googling symptoms can prepare you for what your doctor might say (whether they are likely to examine you or recommend further investigation or scans).

“On the other hand, it might just fuel your anxiety unnecessarily, leaving you more apprehensive before your appointment than perhaps you should be. 

“It’s possible that Googling symptoms might convince you that you can’t face the news and put you off going to the doctor altogether.” 

For more insight into the UK’s health concerns, why not take a look at the rest of our study, which reveals the UK cities making the most health-related searches (and what illnesses they are most concerned about). 

Methodology: 

On 01/10/2019, we performed a Google search for the most common question for 5 of the most searched health concerns in the UK. 

Dr Daniel Atkinson, Clinical Lead at Treated.com, reviewed the advice in each of the articles and scored the information based on the following five criteria. 

  • Does this page contain 100% correct information? 
  • Does this page answer the question that the user was searching for in full, in your opinion
  • Does this article suggest the reader to speak to their doctor?
  • Is the author verified and trusted?
  • Does the article contain any health claims or advice that you would not recommend

Each article in the search results could score a total of 50 points. Each set of articles could score 500 points. 

Ordered by UK monthly search volume, the full list of health questions were:

1. How to get rid of stomach ache?

2. Is pneumonia contagious?

3. Signs of endometriosis?

4. Do I need antibiotics for tonsillitis?

5. Signs of high blood pressure?