Online “symptom checkers have deficits in both diagnosis and triage, and their triage advice is generally risk averse,” according to a new study in BMJ by Harvard researchers. Some of the press coverage of the study has been pretty critical of the symptom checkers, but the study itself is quite balanced.
Symptom checkers are a lot better than “Google Diagnosing” (typing a list of symptoms into Google and seeing what comes up). They’re very similar to nurse triage lines used by health plans, which is no great surprise considering that many of the triage lines use the same logic that drives the symptom checkers. They’re inferior to a primary care physician, but of course physicians aren’t infallible either.
People use symptom checkers to self-diagnose and to figure out if they need to go the emergency department, doctor’s office or can treat at home. Not surprisingly, the symptom checkers err on the side of suggesting patients seek care. No producer of these tools wants to get sued for recommending self-care to someone who should have called an ambulance. But in this regard symptom checkers are similar to nurse triage lines and also –at least in my experience– to physicians who are covering call. Too often they suggest a trip to the ED.
There’s an opportunity to reframe the next generation of symptom checkers as tools for navigating the medical system. That means not just suggesting a diagnosis and level of care, but pointing to an appropriate specialty, facility, or individual clinician to follow up with. This could be especially useful for patients in areas with fewer specialists and sub-specialists, and those with rare or hard to diagnose conditions. Primary care physicians could use such a tool as well to help direct referrals.
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