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What’s the prognosis? CALS alumnus conducts study comparing online symptom checkers with in-person doctor visits

When your stomach starts feeling a little queasy, the first thing you might do is reach for your smartphone or laptop and start punching your symptoms into WebMD. But a new study by a CALS alumus suggests these online symptom checkers are often inaccurate when compared with a physician’s diagnosis.

At a national gastroenterology conference in May, Andrew Berry (BS’10) presented the findings of a study conducted alongside his peers. The group wanted to compare how online symptom checkers stack up against in-person visits to a healthcare provider. Past studies have investigated similar links, but didn’t use real-life encounters between patients and doctors.

Berry (left) is part of a team that has developed a new study investigating the efficacy of online symptom checkers.

The most prominent finding suggested that symptom checkers are not as reliable as physicians when it comes to diagnosing symptoms. For example, when patients entered in symptoms of abdominal pain, the symptom checker failed to return the same diagnosis as the physician’s top three diagnosis 82 percent of the time.

These findings might prompt changes among the developers of this software.

“As symptom checker apps are a large industry, these results may force these companies to improve their diagnostic algorithms,” says Berry.

The study also found that symptom checkers might be overly cautious and list diagnoses that require a more severe response than physicians. This often leads patients to visit a higher triage venue for their health issues.

Berry doesn’t dismiss symptom checkers; in fact, he thinks they indicate patients are being proactive with their health and are aware of issues. But he stresses a healthy balance between technology and face-to-face interaction.

“We want patients using mobile device technology, we just caution the use of symptom checkers driving patients to different treatment venues and down different diagnostic algorithms.”

Now, Berry believes Congress should have a hand in regulating these apps.

“Our data, along with future studies, must be part of this objective evaluation.”

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