Online diagnostic and symptom checkers can help seriously-ill patients for a guided care, says a study led by an Indian-origin researcher.
These web-based tools may be useful for patients who are trying to decide whether they should get to a doctor quickly.
“But in many cases, users should be cautious and not take the information they receive from online symptom checkers as gospel,” said senior study author Ateev Mehrotra, associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School.
In many cases, getting the exact diagnosis may not be as important as getting the correct advice about whether – or how quickly – to go to the doctor.
“It is 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 a doctor quickly,” Mehrotra added in a paper that appeared in the British Medical Journal.
To test the symptom checkers, the researchers created standardised lists of symptoms from 45 clinical vignettes that are used to teach and test medical students.
They then listed those symptoms into 23 different online symptom checkers like Isabel, iTriage, Mayo Clinic and Symcat, among others.
Overall, the software algorithms that the researchers studied listed the correct diagnosis first in 34 percent of cases.
The correct diagnosis was included in the top three diagnoses in the list in 51 percent of cases and in the top 20 in 58 percent.
Overall the 23 symptom checkers provided correct advice in 58 percent of cases with the checkers performing much better in more critical cases, correctly recommending emergency care in 80 percent of urgent cases.
“With symptom trackers, we are looking at the first generation of a new technology.
“It is important to continue to track their performance to see if they can reach their full potential in helping patients get the right care,” said first study author Hannah Semigran, research assistant in health care policy.