Online symptom checkers are a great commodity. You don’t have to get dressed, make an appointment at the doctor’s, excuse yourself from work, or even get out of bed. You just open the laptop, start typing and wait for a diagnosis.
But a new study conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School has found that online symptom checkers rarely offer accurate results. While many experts have expressed doubt towards these websites and programs in the past, it’s worth noting that this study is the first of its kind.
Ateev Mehrotra, lead author, gave a statement to CBS News saying that many people are interested in diagnosing themselves these days, and that they use online symptom checkers in an attempt to figure out what’s wrong with them. So Mehrotra and his colleagues set out to investigate whether or not the advice they end up with is useful.
Online symptom checkers work by asking users to either type in or pick their symptoms from a given list. The app then uses a set of computer algorithms in order to come up with a list of possible conditions that might be causing those symptoms.
In order to test their accuracy, the researchers put together a list of symptoms that were based on 45 different medical scenarios. They than introduce this list in 23 popular symptom checkers hosted by the US, the UK the Netherlands, as well as Poland. Some of them were big brand names such as WebMD or Mayo Clinic.
The results showed that on average the apps provided a correct diagnosis on the first try just 34 percent (34%) of the time. They provided a correct diagnosis within the first three (3) tries 51 percent (51%) of the time, and provided a correct diagnosis within the first twenty (20) tries 58 percent (58%) of the time.
The most accurate one turned out to be Symcat, closely followed by Isabel, ask MD and DocResponse.
The team noted that these online symptom checkers are frequently wrong, with Mehrotra pointing out that the biggest problem may not be that they give an inaccurate diagnosis, but that they advice people wrongly on whether of not they should go see a doctor.
He went on to explain that it’s not all that important for a patient that has a headache, fever, stiff neck and feel confused to be informed that they have meningitis or encepalitis, but that it is critical for them to know that they have to get to an ER quickly.
Mehrotra concluded that these apps are not a bad tool for people to gather information about the state of their health, but that they should not look at them as having the final word.
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