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VERIFY: How accurate are WebMD results?

Viewer Salvatore H. wanted to know if the results he got off WebMD were accurate. Turns out there's research on that.

Salvatore H. asked the VERIFY team “Is Web MD a reliable source for researching medications and their side affects?”

With the rise of online symptom checkers to help us diagnose our ailments, it’s a good idea to figure out exactly how trustworthy they are.

WebMD’s about page states they get their information from, “the latest medical findings published in peer-reviewed medical journals, such as The Journal of the American Medical Association, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, Pediatrics, Diabetes Care, Circulation, and many others.”

A 2013 study found that WebMD received more money from pharmaceutical and device companies than any other medical communication company.

Credit: WebMD
WebMD logo

Therefore, they are reporting on the very companies they are receiving money from. However, their about page specifies their editorial team is separate from their advertising team and they seek to make a clear distinction between editorial information and advertising

A 2015 study found that across all symptom checkers they studied, the correct diagnosis was listed first in 34% of standardized patient evaluations, listed in the first three diagnoses 51% of the time and listed in the first 20 diagnoses 58% of the time.

It’s important to note that this data was not strictly about WebMD, but about many symptom checkers including WebMD.

A 2019 study focused just on WebMD’s accuracy in regard to eye diagnoses. That study found the correct diagnosis was in the top three results just 38% of the time.

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The 2015 study found that symptom checkers were generally risk averse. They generally urge users to seek professional care, even for conditions where self care is considered reasonable.

In fact, on WebMD’s about page they state, “However, the original editorial information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the WebMD Site!”

In an article analyzing the reliability of WebMD, a Vox writer said, “Overall, the doctors I spoke to said they didn't find anything exceptionally egregious about WebMD. But they noted the lack of context around some of the site's medical advice, as well as a smattering of misinformation.”

Simply put, WebMD (as well as other symptom checkers) is fine as a place to start when it comes to anything -- whether it is studying medication and their side effects or if it’s diagnosing symptoms. However, WebMD should not be a final source for anything and further studying or professional opinions are often necessary. 

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