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Study Says Symptom Checker Apps Steer You Wrong
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Study Says Symptom Checker Apps Steer You Wrong

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A study out of Australia shows that “Dr. Google,” a moniker that the Internet coined for symptom checker websites, gets it wrong more often than not.

Researchers adapted 48 patient vignettes (fictitious patients with made-up charts) and had two general practitioners plus one emergency medicine specialist evaluate the vignettes, make a diagnosis, and place each one into a category: emergency, urgent, non-emergency, or self-care. 

They then entered symptoms into 36 web-based self-diagnosis tools and found that:

Compared to a medical diagnosis, symptom checkers arrived at the correct diagnosis only 36% of the time

These programs are quite popular – chances are, you’ve used one more than once. Why are they so inaccurate? We found several reasons why these apps are no replacement for the real thing.

Web apps don’t know your medical history.

Study Says Symptom Checker Apps Steer You Wrong

Your evaluation by a clinician includes a thorough review of your medical history. Symptom checkers may or may not ask about any personal or family medical issues or medications, past or present. If the questions only take into account the symptoms you’re having right now, you may not get an accurate analysis of your individual situation.

Symptom checkers can be alarmist.

Symptom checkers may be quicker to sound the alarm bells and tell you that you’re in an emergency or urgent situation when you’re not. The study actually found that the apps were more likely to over-estimate the severity of the user’s condition, possibly because the program developers designed them to be risk-averse. It’s better to advise someone to go to the hospital for a mild condition than to tell someone with a severe condition to stay home.

Or worse, they can give you an over-optimistic outlook for a serious condition.

Study Says Symptom Checker Apps Steer You Wrong

Even though the apps were generally inclined to minimize risk, you cannot discount the possibility that the app will give you incorrect advice and tell you that your symptoms will resolve with self-care or a non-urgent appointment, when actually your condition is serious. Always consider that there are rare conditions or non-typical symptom presentations that can throw these apps off.

Regional and rare diseases aren’t always accounted for.

In short, if the app developers don’t know about your condition, it’s not possible that it will show up as a result for you.

Anyone can build an online symptom checker.

Anyone with the right resources can build a symptom checker app. There’s no licensing or credential required to develop a symptom checker site, and there’s no oversight attached to these services. There have been numerous concerns about the trustworthiness of information on these sites, and the legitimacy of these programs. Privacy can be an issue, since HIPAA and related privacy laws only apply to legitimate medical services, and symptom checker apps are exempt. 

Picture this hypothetical scenario. Imagine a company sells a certain health device and runs a tangential symptom-checker app, and it is designed to more often point to results that tell the user they should buy the device. See how things can go wrong?

Symptom checker apps can be useful, though.

Study Says Symptom Checker Apps Steer You Wrong

Symptom checker apps are correct some of the time, and they can narrow down your search and help you have an informed conversation with your doctor about how you’re feeling.

Further, these apps can be helpful in helping public health officials track the spread of COVID-19, for example. Symptom checker app data was instrumental in finding that loss of taste and smell were symptoms of COVID-19, and this kind of information can be helpful in identifying areas of an active outbreak.

Other ways to evaluate your symptoms in your pajamas.

It’s understandable to want to stay in the comfort of your own home and avoid the waiting that comes with a doctor’s visit. Especially when you’re not feeling well, you probably don’t even want to get out of our pajamas.

Thankfully, legitimate apps like Teledoc and Dr. On Demand, which offer you a phone and video evaluation by a real doctor, are popping up left and right. Since COVID is keeping people out of the doctor’s office, a lot of practices have developed ways to evaluate patients remotely. If you are interested in a remote evaluation, call your doctor or your medical insurance company and see what your options are.

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