Online Symptom Checker Apps Unreliable, New Study Says

Just about everybody does it. Whether its googling your symptoms or using an online quiz-type symptom checker on a site like WebMD, hundreds of millions of searches are done every year to try to self-diagnose our symptoms get advice on whether to seek medical care or just wait until we feel better.

But now, a new study led by researchers at Harvard Medical School has found that online symptom checkers are wrong more often then they’re right.

The first ever study of the accuracy of general-purpose symptom checkers discovered that, although the online programs are often wrong, they are actually roughly no worse than the telephone triage lines commonly used at primary care practices.

And they are better than general Internet-search self-diagnosis and triage. Senior author Ateev Mehrotra, of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, said:

“These tools may be useful in patients who are trying to decide whether they should get to a doctor quickly, but in may cases, users should be cautious and not take the information they receive from online symptom checkers as gospel.”

Frequently, finding the exact correct diagnosis may not be as important as getting the right advice about whether, or how rapidly, to go see a doctor.

“It’s not nearly as important for a patient with fever, headache, stiff neck and confusion to know whether they have meningitis or encephalitis as it is for them to know that they should get to an ER quickly,” Mehrotra said.

In general the 23 symptom checkers gave the correct triage advice in 58 percent of cases. The checkers performed much better in more critical cases, correctly recommending emergency care in 80 percent of urgent cases.

In comparison, previous studies have found that Internet search engines for urgent symptoms only led to content that suggested emergency medical treatment 64 percent of the time.

Another issue is that symptom checkers that were evaluated were prone to being overly cautious. They encouraged users to seek care for situations where staying at home might be reasonable.

This tendency toward overly cautious advice, the researchers note, spurs people to seek unnecessary care, a result that health care reform seeks to minimize to reduce costs.

First author Hannah Semigran, HMS research assistant in health care policy, concluded:

“The tools are not likely to go away. With symptom trackers, we’re looking at the first generation of a new technology. It’s important to continue to track their performance to see if they can reach their full potential in helping patients get the right care.”