Most online symptom checkers don’t work as advertised

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Researchers from the Harvard Medical School were looking to test whether online symptom checkers really work. There are quite a few of these services — some of which are run by major brands such as the Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Pediatrics and WebMD — but that doesn’t mean they actually “get things done.” Quite the contrary, researchers have found that symptom checkers provided the correct diagnosis first in only 34% of cases, and within the first three diagnoses 51% of the time.

“Our results imply that in many cases symptom checkers can give the user a sense of possible diagnoses but also provide a note of caution, as the tools are frequently wrong and the triage advice overly cautious,” Hannah Semigran and Ateev Mehrota, researchers in health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School, and their co-authors wrote in the study.

Symptom checker services, some of which have companion mobile apps, allow users to type in the aches, pains and irritations they are experiencing and get their (list of possible) diagnosis within seconds. Most services also ask users several questions to hone in on a disease or condition, but even those extra inputs haven’t brought in reliable results.

For the project, the researchers ran 45 patient scenarios (or as many as made sense on specialty sites focused on certain types of conditions or demographics) on each of the symptom checkers. Fifteen of the cases required emergency care, 15 required non-emergency care, and 15 may have required self care but did not necessarily require a medical visit. Of all the cases, 26 described common diagnoses while 19 described uncommon diagnoses. The study found DocResponse to be the most accurate medical symptom checker.

The researchers ran 45 patient scenarios on each of the symptom checkers, 26 of which described common diagnoses while 19 described uncommon diagnoses.Less desirable but still potentially useful for patients was when a site listed the correct diagnosis within the first three possibilities. Two sites returned a large number of diagnoses, which according to the researchers (and common sense, for that matter) is “unlikely to be useful for patients.”

At the end of the study, Harvard Medical School researchers created the chart that ranked symptom checkers in accuracy from 71 to 29 percent.

Finally, when it comes to triage advice, online services were better at sounding the alarm when patients were experiencing an emergency than when they weren’t. The researchers have found that the appropriate advice was provided 57 percent of the time, which is comparable to telephone triage lines and better than using search engines to try to guess the diagnosis yourself.

[Via: Washington Post]