STUDY: Symptom Checker Apps Don’t Compare to Real Doctors

If you ever found yourself surfing the internet for answers to why you’re feeling under the weather, you’re not alone. According to the  Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, one-third of Americans turn to the internet for medical advice.

Symptom-checker apps like WebMD and FreeMD have soared in popularity in recent years, but Doctors Andrew Berry and Brooks Cash at the University of South Alabama Medical Center discovered the apps might sometimes do more harm than good.

“We actually found these symptom checkers were severely inferior compared to the doctors, and that patients were going to venues inappropriate for their symptoms,” Berry said. “This is the age of multimedia. People are apt to using these devices. That’s good. We want patients involved in their care, however, I would caution what it tells you to do.”

While prior studies have looked at data from symptom-checker apps compared to in-person physician care, Berry said he was surprised to find no one has studied the two prospectively as patients visited the hospital.

“They typed in their symptoms on the app, and then we pitted them head to head with the doctor’s diagnosis blinded,” Berry explained. “For example, if someone has constipation, and it ends up telling them that they have cancer, that’s something that cannot be used in a daily setting. It’s not good for the patient experience.”


They found that 82% of the time patients who plugged in stomach pain symptoms into the app received a different top diagnosis than that of an actual physician. 55% of the time, the physician’s diagnosis didn’t even make the app’s top three suggestions.

“Patients who were using these symptom checkers and making decisions based on the symptom checkers had a more acute or worrisome diagnosis than what they really had based on the clinician’s diagnosis,” Cash said. “That has significant implications for the patient, their future care, their expenses, and their cost of care to society as well.”

Across town, Dr. Darren Waters at Greater Mobile Urgent Care said he has a better alternative to symptom-checker apps.

“Every shift I work, somebody goes to WebMD. Sometimes it’s legitimate and they need to be seen. But, a lot of times it’s not, and we could have saved them a doctor’s visit just with telemedicine,” Waters said. “The big difference is you’ll literally speak with a healthcare professional.”

Telemedicine is not a new concept, but it’s quickly becoming widely used in various specialties within the medical field.

“What it does is it expands health care to small towns and rural areas where people don’t have access to physicians and hospitals. It expands health care to people who have those high co-pays and high deductible insurance plans or maybe don’t have insurance at all.”



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