Are Online Symptom Checkers Accurate? Study Says No.

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In our modern technology driven age we've all become somewhat reliant on the internet to inform us and assist us in numerous facets of our everyday life. From ordering a pizza to shopping for new clothes and even taking care of many of our health care needs, we rely on information from the Internet that seems to be at our fingertips all the time. In fact, a Pew Internet Project survey indicates that nearly two-thirds of American adults use the Internet for health related information. But, don't be fooled; not all online resources are the same. And, while getting a bad pizza doesn't sound like the end of the world, when your health and wellness is concerned, an incorrect medical diagnosis could do actual harm.

Symptom Checkers

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Symptom checker websites are an online resource that many people are increasingly coming to rely on. These websites typically allow you to select your symptoms and then the software generally follows-up by asking you a series of questions in an attempt to narrow the number of possible results relating to your symptoms. Most of these websites will then list a number of possible ailments and/or conditions, usually ranked in order of how likely they are to match the symptoms you've just described. And, while original versions of symptom checker programs did little more than search for keywords, proponents of the websites point out that many of the newer symptom checker programs use sophisticated algorithms based on Bayesian inference. In theory, these newer algorithm based program models do a better job reaching the correct diagnosis than the original key word based versions.

This seems like a handy tool, right? Well, not so fast. A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and published in the British Medical Journal observed symptoms from 45 clinical cases and then used 23 different free online symptoms checker websites in the United States, England, Poland, and the Netherlands to check the accuracy of the diagnoses provided by the websites. The researchers found that online symptom checkers are wrong an astonishing sixty-six percent of the time. In other words, two out of every three diagnoses were incorrect.

The Harvard researchers looked at three specific types of cases:

  • cases where emergency care was required,
  • cases where non-emergency care was required,
  • and cases where self-care was simply required.

The research showed that online symptom checkers listed the correct diagnosis first only thirty-four percent of the time, with the right diagnosis listed in the top 20 possible diagnoses fifty-eight percent of the time. Further, the symptom checker websites gave the correct advice regarding the necessary course of treatment only fifty-seven percent of the time. While those sound like pretty poor statistics, to be fair, at least when it came to identifying the emergency care cases the symptom checkers were correct approximately eighty percent of the time. But, while that statistic may be a bit more comforting, the websites were also shown to provide correct course of treatment advice in only fifty-five percent of the non-emergency cases, and correct advice in only thirty-three percent of the self-care cases.

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So, if you can’t rely on your usual online symptom checkers for reliable and accurate medical advice, what can you do?

Of course, making a doctor's appointment and taking the time and energy to actually visit regularly with your physician is one solution. But, in this day and age who has an afternoon, or an entire day, to dedicate to a doctor visit? Never fear, there's another great alternative that can assist you in maintaining you and your family's overall health and wellness, save you repeated trips to the doctor's office, and provide you with more reliable treatment and care than any symptom checker website.

Telemedicine

Man Having Video Chat With Female Doctor If you love the notion of being able to simply click a few buttons online and get a diagnosis, than telemedicine might just be the best thing you don’t yet know about.

Telemedicine can be defined as the use of medical information that is exchanged from one place to another via electronic communication to improve a patient’s overall health and wellness. It can be as simple as exchanging an email with your doctor to as advanced as having a highly skilled surgeon perform a procedure from thousands of miles away.

Relying on a growing variety of applications and services, telemedicine uses technology to make real-time interaction between patient and medical practitioner more frequent and convenient, and offers numerous benefits as a supplement to traditional in-person medical care.

First, many people find it difficult to travel to clinics, hospitals, and/or doctors’ offices for any number of reasons. Whether travel restrictions are heath related or simply due to the logistics of living in a rural setting, telemedicine can be a great option for those with unique physical challenges or those who simply find it difficult to receive traditional in-person medical care. By utilizing video conferencing and other telemedicine technology, both healthcare practitioners and patients can reduce the costs associated with regular in-person doctor visits.

Remote medical technology provides an increasingly popular way to reliably administer preventive medicines and manage chronic conditions. More commonly, telemedicine is utilized as an urgent care of emergency room alternative. Patients suffering from low-acuity ailments like a sinus infection or UTI can quickly connect with a doctor licensed in their state to discuss their medical history and current symptoms with a healthcare practitioner, who can then provide a treatment plan as well as a prescription (when medically necessary.)

Telemedicine can also be used as a means to monitor discharged patients in order to continue tracking their recovery process - thereby facilitating even greater communication between physician and patient.

In fact, research shows that the use of telemedicine technologies can result in fewer hospital re-admissions, increase the likelihood that patients will accurately follow prescribed courses of treatment, and contribute to a patient's faster overall recovery than not receiving telemedicine assistance.

In the end, while symptom checker websites may be a quick and easy alternative to scheduling an appointment to see your doctor, they come nowhere near providing the level of care you can receive through an online exam.

So the next time you want to banish sick with just a click, consider scheduling a visit with a doctor online through a telemedicine provider like MeMD.