Have you been using an online symptom-checker to assess possible illnesses such as COVID-19? They’re not your best option, according to a recent Australian study that found medical diagnosis apps provide inappropriate care advice. The apps investigated showed an incorrect diagnosis as the top result 64 percent of the time and inappropriate triage advice 51 percent of the time.
The 36 symptom-checkers researchers ran health scenarios through included ones offered by WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and Drugs.com. They tested over 1000 scenarios, with symptoms of mild to severe illnesses. The first ten results of each test were scrutinized, and an “Accurate diagnosis was defined as including the correct diagnosis as the top result, or as being among the top three or top ten potential diagnoses.”
Why medical diagnosis apps aren’t effective at assessing symptoms
First, diagnosis is a process, not a single assessment. Second, if you’re using an app that is not located in your corner of the globe, it may not even include illnesses specific to your country. And third, according to the study, there are serious limitations to these apps:
“The diagnostic accuracy of SCs (symptom-checkers) is limited by their programming and how information is presented. For example, the core signs and symptoms in the “heart attack” vignette are chest pain, sweating, and breathlessness. The Health Tools (American Association of Retired Persons) SC found no ‘possible causes’ for this symptom combination, but suggested 51 diagnoses for the lone symptom’ chest pain,’ with ‘heart attack’ listed second. That is, diagnostic usefulness was reduced by increasing the number of symptoms entered, although the tool prompts users to enter multiple symptoms.”
According to the researchers, not everyone’s experience with symptom-checkers will be the same: “Health and computer literacy could affect how people use SCs, and this can pose challenges for patient-physician relationships if the SC advice contradicts that of the physician.”
Medical diagnosis app use during the pandemic
As you might expect, the use of symptom-checkers during the current pandemic is on the rise. In fact, WebMD received 31.2 million visitors in the past week!
When symptom checkers give a serious illness as a result for less serious cases, it can contribute to overwhelming the health care system. Even worse, when it does the opposite, the results could be dangerous for the potential patient, especially when COVID-19 symptoms are changing. Will these diagnosis apps keep up?
What you should do if you think you are sick
A doctor’s appointment may be a better option than turning to online medical diagnosis apps. According to the CDC, you should (as of this writing) do the following if you think you are sick:
- Stay home except to get medical care.
- Separate yourself from other people
- Monitor your symptoms
- Call ahead before visiting your doctor (many health professionals are offering telehealth options at this time)
- If you are sick wear a cloth covering over your nose and mouth
- Cover your coughs and sneezes
- Clean your hands often
- Avoid sharing personal household items
- Clean all “high-touch” surfaces every day
And if you experience any of the following symptoms, seek emergency medical care:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
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