Study: Online Symptom Checkers Correct in About Half of Cases

July 10, 2015 in News

Online symptom checkers are only accurate about 50% of the time, according to a Harvard Medical School study published Wednesday in the BMJ, WBUR/Kaiser Health News reports (Bebinger, WBUR/Kaiser Health News, 7/9).

Details of Study

For the study, researchers reviewed 23 symptom checker websites, including:

  • Ask MD (Whitehead, “Shots,” NPR, 7/9);
  • DocResponse;
  • Isabel (WBUR/Kaiser Health News, 7/9);
  • iTriage;
  • The Mayo Clinic (“Shots,” NPR, 7/9); and
  • WebMD.

Researchers entered symptoms for 45 patients into the checkers, sourced from standardized vignettes used in medical student training (WBUR/Kaiser Health News, 7/9). The patients’ conditions included:

  • Acute liver failure;
  • Bee stings;
  • Meningitis; and
  • Mononucleosis (“Shots,” NPR, 7/9).

Study Findings

Overall, the study found about:

  • One-third of the sites named the correct diagnosis as the patient’s first option;
  • 51% of the sites named the correct diagnosis in their top three options; and
  • 58% of the sites named the correct diagnosis in their top 20 options (Semigran, BMJ, 7/9).

Overall, researchers said the checkers were about as accurate as diagnoses made through primary care physician phone services, which usually offer insight on whether patients should seek urgent care. Further, lead author Hannah Semigran, a research assistant at Harvard Medical School, said the online symptom checkers were “pretty good at effectively directing people with an (emergency) situation to seek some kind of appropriate care, and to do so quickly” (Mozes, HealthDay, 7/9).

Comments

Ateev Mehrotra, one of the study authors, said the findings show patients should use symptom checker sites with caution (WBUR/Kaiser Health News, 7/9). He said, “People who use these tools should be aware of their inaccuracy and not see them as gospel. They shouldn’t think that whatever the symptom checker says is what they have” (“Shots,” NPR, 7/9).

Mehrotra added, “These sites are not a replacement for going to the doctor and getting a full evaluation and diagnosis. They are simply providing some information on what might be going on with you” (WBUR/Kaiser Health News, 7/9).

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