Move over, Dr Google! Is ChatGPT a reliable go-to for health answers?

What can ChatGPT really tell you about your health? Healthcare experts reveal the potential benefits and limitations of this much-hyped AI tool.

Who among us hasn’t been tempted to type illness symptoms into Dr Google “just to check”?

Statistics vary, but studies show between 50 and 80 per cent of Aussies seek health information online.

However, medical advice given by free online symptom checkers is not fail-safe.

Edith Cowan University research published in 2020 revealed those who do check their symptoms online receive correct medical advice only about a third of the time.

So, if the internet has changed the way in which patients get wellness facts, what does public access to sophisticated next-gen AI programs, led by ChatGPT, mean for the future?

Is this chatbot a supercharged Dr Google? And if so, are there any risks?

ChatGPT vs. Google: What healthcare experts found

South Australian cancer and digital health experts, led by Flinders University researcher Dr Ash Hopkins, tackled those questions in a new study published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum.

With ChatGPT providing more data than simple online searches and being able to explain conditions and treatments in easily understood language, Dr Hopkins and his team wanted to understand how the AI tool would answer more complex questions around cancer.

“We got together examples of common questions patients with cancer would ask,” Dr Hopkins says.

“My background is in pharmacy, so one question was around whether pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug, could cause fever and should the patient go to hospital – healthcare professionals would know what advice to give, but would ChatGPT?”

The study found the AI tool had “a remarkable ability” to respond in a way less likely to cause alarm than Google’s featured snippet (the highlighted box at the top of the search results page).

Practical recommendations, such as speaking to your doctor, were also often added by the chatbot.

ChatGPT’s limitations in healthcare advice

“We found the ChatGPT responses didn’t provide quality references … the tool will produce only answers to some questions and isn’t currently kept up to date in real time,” Dr Hopkins cautions.

He adds ChatGPT will also “produce incorrect answers in a confident-sounding manner” – something the researchers say requires speedy improvement.

The South Australian team suggests with the prospect that the high-octane tool will become an important virtual assistant to not only patients but health-care providers, there’s an urgent need for regulators and medical professionals to develop standards for minimum quality, and to raise patient awareness about its current limitations.

The downside of ChatGPT for health advice

Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Medical Ethics and Law director Professor Keymanthri Moodley says with the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship the cornerstone of the healthcare profession, bioethicists have been contemplating the role ChatGPT might play in healthcare.

“Good-quality evidence is the foundation of medical treatment and advice,” Prof Moodley says.

“In our era of democratised healthcare, health providers and patients use various platforms to access information that guides their decision-making.”

ChatGPT might not be adequately resourced or configured at this point in its development to provide accurate and unbiased information, Prof Moodley adds.

“There’s also the question of confidentiality of patient information, which forms the basis of trust in the doctor-patient relationship – ChatGPT threatens this privacy, a risk vulnerable patients might not understand,” she says.

“We’ve just seen Italy respond to these concerns by banning the chatbot.”

 ChatGPT’s potential role in healthcare

Dr Hopkins says while human doctors will always be needed to make the final call on healthcare decisions, there are areas ChatGPT may work, including real-time translation.

“The system’s advanced language processing capabilities can translate technical terms and medical jargon, helping patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options,” Dr Hopkins says.

Medical documentation, virtual assistance for telemedicine, drug information, and prediction of disease risk and outcomes are other areas some experts believe ChatGPT can benefit patients.

“The technology is rapidly improving, getting more accurate, getting sophisticated; and tools like ChatGPT are convenient and accessible – but it’s about getting the balance right,” Dr Hopkins says.

“While it’s okay at present to use it for some background reading, if there are any symptoms you’re experiencing right now, you should be talking to your doctor.”

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Written by Liz McGrath.