Web-based Symptom Checkers: Travelers’ Aide or Not?3 min read
Travelers to remote locations with limited or no options for professional medical care often have access to the Internet and thus the ability to seek out web-based tools to diagnose conditions and recommend medical triage. Even those in the comfort of their own homes have made free self-help symptom checkers a popular pastime on the web.
How useful are they? In vetting some of the most popular of these “checkers”, it appears that they produce a lot of information but fall short of providing definitive answers. For instance, WrongDiagnosis.com, provides a list of 1,729 causes for abdominal pain and vomiting and 1,300 causes for cough and throat symptoms.
Other symptom checkers, such as OptumHealth.com provide only a modicum of information for most problems and appear quick to pull the trigger for a doctor referral. \When entering the symptoms of headache and virtually any other symptom such as fever, a history of high blood pressure or band tightness around the forehead, the user is always told to call the ambulance or physician’s office.
WebMD’s symptom checker appears slightly more useful but often falls short of providing detailed information. It usually limits the patient to just a few rounds of questions and then offers a number of possibilities. Although the list is nowhere near as exhaustive as WrongDiagnosis.com, WebMD stops short of doing a deeper dive for symptoms of abdominal pain and vomiting and lists 20 possible diagnoses.
The Mayo Clinic’s symptom checker was similar. It provided a comprehensive checklist of symptoms for the user to select. However, despite requesting a more detailed history than the WebMD site, the number of possibilities declined slightly, if at all. When additional history was added to the complaint of upper abdominal pain with vomiting, such as the quality of the pain, timing, exacerbating factors, and associated symptoms such as diarrhea and fever, there were still over 20 options for a diagnosis.
The symptom checker from Everyday Health, designed to mimic the real experience of providing a medical history to a health care professional, does perhaps the best job of identifying medical maladies. The website uses an extensive number of algorithms —responses to each question prompt another series of questions—ultimately providing the end user with a much smaller number of possibilities. The process takes much longer than the other symptom checkers, and often results in a recommendation to see a health care professional anyway, but still deserves kudos for its efforts to be more specific.
In fairness to all online symptom checkers, the identification of illnesses is often challenging because disease symptoms overlap. For instance, abdominal pain with vomiting can be associated with dozens of causes, and it may not be realistic to expect a symptom checker to accurately identify even a limited number of illnesses. It’s reasonable to expect web-based checkers to improve on their results, so feel free to use them, but keep your expectations in line.
Other popular symptom checkers worth checking out: