Search Engines vs. Symptom Checkers: A Comparison of their Effectiveness for Online Health Advice

2021 | Proceedings of The Web Conference 2021
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Increasingly, people go online to seek health advice. They commonly use the symptoms they are experiencing to identify the health conditions they may have (self-diagnosis task) as well as to determine an appropriate action to take (triaging task); e.g., should they seek emergent medical attention or attempt to treat themselves at home? This paper investigates the effectiveness of two of the most common methods people use for self-diagnosis and triaging: online symptom checkers and traditional web search engines. To this end, we conducted a user study with 64 real-world users performing 8 simulated self-diagnosis tasks. Participants were exposed to both a representative symptom checker and a search engine. The results of our study provide empirical evidence for whether using a search engine for health information improves people’s understanding of their health condition and their ability to act on them, compared to interacting with a symptom checker, which bases its interaction model on a question-answering process. Additionally, recorded answers to qualitative questionnaires from study participants provide insights into which style of interaction and system they prefer to use for obtaining medical information, and how helpful they thought each system was. These findings can help inform the development of better search engines and symptom checkers that support people seeking health advice online.