Advertisement

Your Guide to Digital Health Resources

Your Guide to Digital Health Resources

Our experts provide tips for navigating online symptom checkers—and share why you should still see your doc.

You’re grumpy—and wonder why. So you enter the word in a symptom checker online and find out you may have 1 of 82 disorders or diseases, ranging from a middle ear infection or menopause (and you’re a guy!) to dementia and a subarachnoid hemorrhage between your brain and the tissue that covers it.

Try again. You also have achy joints. Ah, that leads you to a list of 101 causes of joint pain. Maybe it’s ulcerative colitis-related—who knew it could make your joints hurt? Or from infectious mono?

But you cannot find any condition that shows up on both lists. So maybe you have two different illnesses at the same time!

That can be an information-seeker’s nightmare. Yet hundreds of millions of times a year people turn to online and app-based symptom checkers to help figure out what’s ailing them, if they should call the doctor or if it’s time for a visit to the ER pronto! You might as well ask a crystal ball if LeBron is happy in LA. It’s anybody’s guess.

That’s the conclusion (not the one about LeBron) of a new study published in The Lancet that examines both the promise and reality of symptom checkers. The researchers looked at a wide range of studies on diagnostic direct-to-consumer (DTC) digital tools and concluded: “Overall, the current evidence base on DTC, interactive diagnostic apps is . . . uneven in the information provided and inconclusive with respect to safety and effectiveness . . .” Buyer beware, for sure.

This reinforces findings from earlier studies: While misdiagnosis by human doctors happens about 5 percent of the time—affecting about 12 million US adults annually—according to a 2014 study in BMJ Quality & Safety, misdiagnosis by digital symptom checkers happens, on average, about 50 percent of the time!

In another study published in BMJ in 2015, researchers tested 23 symptom checkers by having them evaluate symptoms derived from 45 clinical vignettes that are used to teach and test medical students. Overall, the symptom checker listed the correct diagnosis first in only 34 percent of cases and put it in the top three diagnoses 51 percent of the time. And another study published that year in Diagnosis concluded, “research suggests that they [medical apps and online tools] should be used with great caution . . . The lack of verifiable information provided about the evidence or expertise used to develop these apps is of major concern.”

How to be a smart digital health info consumer
You’re not going to stop checking out online health info—and shouldn’t. It’s only human to go to what’s right at your fingertips (literally). But all symptom-checker digital health sources are not created equal.

  1. The best one (we are biased) was developed for the Department of Defense and is available on the Sharecare app iOS and Android. (It’s a free download.) It has the best questionnaire(s) and data and is most likely to offer correct diagnoses. Plus, it will send you to a nearby doc (or telemedicine connection), if you want one.
  2. Telemedicine can provide personalized medical advice reliably: Dr. Mike’s Cleveland Clinic offers Cleveland Clinic Express Care Online at my.clevelandclinic.org/online-services/express-care-online and Dr. Oz’s New York Presbyterian Hospital offers NYP On-Demand at www.nyp.org/ondemand. Chances are your local medical intuitions have similar services.
  3. Don’t let online results make you think you can determine your own treatment. You know the expression “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client?” Well, a patient who has him- or herself for a doctor is foolish too! Get your online info; then call/tele-call your physician for a consult or an appointment.
  4. As for online health info: We hope you’ll use it to help you stay healthy so you don’t need a symptom checker. DoctorOz.com is a highly trustworthy zone where you can get the support, encouragement and advice you need to be your healthiest self.
What Does Wikipedia Say?
What Does Wikipedia Say?
My next patient to see had an extremely rare form of brain tumor. Age? 31. Let me rephrase that—what I soon learned was that my patient had googled h...
Read More
Can controlled substances be prescribed using online care or an e-visit?
Haya Rubin, MDHaya Rubin, MD
No, this is not permitted as controlled substances cannot be prescribed online in general. 
More Answers
What are the limitations for using online care or an e-visit?
Lisa J. Broyles, MDLisa J. Broyles, MD
Limitations would include that our physicians are not substitutes for having a regular primary care ...
More Answers
Has Healthcare Become Too Reliant on Technology?
Has Healthcare Become Too Reliant on Technology?