Do Online Symptom Checkers Really Work?

Online Symptom Checkers have always been around but never have they been more popular than amid the pandemic. Online symptom checkers are virtual analytical systems that ask users to select or key in details about their signs and symptoms of sickness, along with their gender, age and location. Using computerised algorithms, the self diagnosis tool will then give a range of conditions that might fit the problems a user is experiencing along with further information or links that might be relevant. From the simple to the complicated, there are multiple symptom checkers available which users might prefer beyond simply keying in the name of their condition on Google.

Since the onset of the COVID-19, more and more people have been looking up their symptoms online to see if they match that of the dreaded virus. Generally, the symptoms of COVID-19 infection are similar to that of an acute respiratory infection or pneumonia. These symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, loss of taste or smell. If positive for one or more of these symptoms, the online symptom checker usually prompts the user to seek medical advice or consult a medical professional. The fact that such a system exists is indeed a positive development in terms of how such tools can enhance the patient experience and clinical capacity.

However, there has been some controversy over the accuracy of online symptom checkers and the potential impact on service utilisation. A 2021 study by Doctorlink shows that online symptom checkers are accurate only 38% of the time and are likely to perform worse when users require urgent attention.

A key finding of the study found that online symptom checkers raised the usage of healthcare resources. In fact, in more than 80% of conditions that could be self-managed or treated, primary care resources were recommended. Granted that the system could be suggesting these out of an abundance of caution but it raises issues of accuracy, creates paranoia and anxiety, which could adversely affect the individual.

Given the vast array of  symptom checkers available onliune, the diagnostic accuracy and recommendations of the appropriate resource varied  significantly between tools. However, the users had no way of independently verifying that they were given the correct diagnosis and that the recommended approach to care was accurate.

However, online symptoms still have some way to go before they can be taken seriously from a medical point of view, although they have their strengths. A fragmented sector of the healthtech market, it is not as visible as some of the other innovations or technologies in this space, which include integrated digital health platforms, telehealth consultations and more.

Although some online symptom checkers are certainly doing their part to help diagnose and triage their patients accurately and safely, others exist in the market that are unable to do so – and some even claim to use AI but do not.

With the apparent risks of online misinformation, digital healthcare platforms need to do more to carefully assess their offerings and ensure that they are focused on accuracy and that the right follow up approach toward patient health is suggested.

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