Symptom Checkers: Could These Apps Perform Triage?

Apr 26, 2020 2:00:00 PM / by Joy Youell

Put in, “I feel pain in my right side” and you may accidentally rush to the hospital for an appendectomy. But put in, “achy eye discomfort with swelling and blurred vision” and you may rightly seek first aid for a corneal scratch. Symptom checker apps are readily available and easy to use. But are they a good idea? They have been proposed for use in emergency rooms (to reduce wait time) and condemned as providing red herrings for hypochondriacs. 

Symptom checking apps are improving. They are being refined by AI and better data sources. While they don’t replace your doctor, they have many uses that can improve your medical experience. Read this article to learn:

  1. The ways symptom checker apps are being used
  2. The most popular symptom checking apps you can download
  3. The dangers of symptom checker apps
  4. How medical apps can benefit your health

Symptom Checker App for ERs

A study published in 2018 found that emergency department visits increase by about 3.5% annually. That journal article recommended efficiency improvement efforts that included:

  • Hiring researchers to analyze patient flow
  • Weekly staff committee meetings
  • Coordination between departments
  • Active engagement from executive teams
  • Adding a flow nurse coordinator, whose role would be to expedite patient admission and bed assignments

In addition to the logistics of assigning beds, another bottleneck for emergency rooms is triage. A number of digital and electronic tools have been tested to solve this problem.

Web-Based Triage Tools

As early as 2015, medical journals were covering the development of web-based tools for triaging patients in the emergency department. At first, published trials compared the accuracy of online tools versus traditional tools in assessing a patient’s severity score. In this study, the online tools were 95% as effective as manual processes.

RoboNurse: BeWell Triage Machine

In 2017, what was affectionately coined a “robonurse” became available to medical facilities. Manufactured by BeWell, kiosks allow patients to self-test, digitally recording vitals and analysis questions. Customer reviews on their website record enormous time savings and efficiency improvements in European hospitals where these kiosks are used. 

Symptom Checker Apps in Hospitals

As of early 2019, several hospital systems—including Boston Children’s hospital and Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin—instituted proactive partnerships with symptom checking apps. The idea is to integrate user information into triage practices. While performance still varies, a study in London indicated that doctors found symptom checker app information to be useful for treating their patients 92% of the time.

Medical Symptoms Checker Apps

There are currently several different medical symptoms checker apps that you can download from iTunes or the Appstore. Using an app or online medical website should never replace an actual doctor’s advice. Unless you are tele-conferencing, roboticized answers aren’t (yet!) a substitute for someone checking your vitals and observing you in-person. 

At best, a symptoms checker will help you make decisions about whether you need to go see a doctor. They do not provide a conclusive diagnosis about your condition. If you are interested in seeing how they work, here are some of the top-rated apps for checking your medical symptoms:

  • Symptomate by Infermedica: this is highly rated for accuracy and uses artificial intelligence to suggest over 800 conditions.
  • WebMD Symptom Checker: while it has had a bad rep as “Dr. Google,” WebMD’s diagnosis service is a useful tool for understanding conditions, drugs, treatments and even finding doctors near you.
  • Ada Health Companion: Ada knows thousands of symptoms and conditions and has an intuitive interface. You tell the app how you feel and it provides an assessment.
  • Your.MD: this app has a symptom checker in addition to other features, including health info and a marketplace of healthcare providers. 
  • Diagnose.me: there are three steps for Diagnose me, which provides live chats or calls with specialists who deal with your symptoms. You can agree to follow-ups, in which you can ask additional questions.

Again, these are not a replacement for a doctor visit. They could, however, be useful in helping you provide a symptom list for your doctor. This list of symptoms may be populated by the way these interfaces help identify your condition and ask more questions to help you self-assess how you feel. 

Keep in mind that inputted information is what creates a symptom checker diagnosis. The right diagnosis may not look the same across multiple symptom checkers. Varied interfaces, algorithms and even AI functions change the way symptom checker apps work. The validity of the info you receive should always be cross-checked with your physician before you begin any remedies or treatment.

The Danger of Symptom Checking Apps

We’ve all been down the 3am WebMD rabbit hole, where a persistent headache blossoms into brain cancer. It’s easy to get inaccurate understanding of something our bodies are experiencing. No one has completely thorough or accurate understanding of the human body. There are complex dynamics in play at all times, as the many systems of our bodies interact to function. 

The danger of feeling you have reliable medical information at the tap of a finger is that it gives you false confidence or even causes you to avoid getting medical help. While these apps are useful, they are incomplete and still very new. It may be helpful to ask your doctor what they think, or to use an app to create your symptom list and then consult with your physician. 

In a 2018 Time article, many interviewed doctors saw symptom checker apps as beneficial. They recognize that, with limited time, patients who have used apps like these arrive at their appointment with better information, which can create more efficient conversations. In other words, symptom apps are a tool, but not a magic trick.

DocClocker Medical App

It seems like there’s an app for everything nowadays! If you like engaging with your health and wellness through apps, DocClocker is a great interface for patients. This app provides many useful tools, including:

  • A large, searchable database of medical care providers
  • Notifications about doctor appointments
  • Reviews of doctors and specialists
  • Operating room communication
  • “Find a doctor near me” feature to get map-based, real time medical care

Want to check it out? Go here to download it from the Playstore and go here to download it from the App Store. No symptom checker app or medical app is currently able to replace your doctor. However, they may make your visit quicker and put your mind at ease. 

Sources:

Bannow, Tara. “Sutter Health's online symptom checker aims to provide care at the right time, place.” Modern Healthcare, February 23, 2019. Accessed January 22, 2020.

Cooper, Daniel. “Meet the automated triage nurse of the future.” Engadget, March 7, 2017. Accessed January 22, 2020.

DeAnda, R. “Stop the Bottleneck: Improving Patient Throughput in the Emergency Department.” Journal of Emergency Nursing, June 20, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2020.

Elias, Pierre, et al. “A Web-Based Tool for Patient Triage in Emergency Department Settings: Validation Using the Emergency Severity Index.” JMIR Medical Informatics, 2015. Accessed January 22, 2020.

Park, Alice. “Should You Diagnose Yourself Online? Here’s What Doctors Think.” Time, April 10, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2020.

Tags: Wait time app, Waiting room, Patient app, Digital healthcare, Telehealth, Healthcare news, Medical health, Doctor app, Medical app, IT healthcare news, Digital medical, Telemedicine, doctor patient relationship, patient communication, Healthcare trends

Joy Youell

Written by Joy Youell

Joy Youell writes about IT healthcare, digital medical innovations and improving patient experiences for DocClocker.