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Study Finds Online Symptom Checkers Are Only Accurate Half The Time


There's a warning out there for those of us who go online to figure out why we have an upset stomach or a nagging cough. Symptom checkers - those tools that ask for information and a offer diagnosis - are only accurate about half the time. Martha Bebinger of member station WBUR has the story.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: The finding is from a Harvard Medical School study that reviewed 23 sites such as Web M.D., the Mayo Clinic and DocResponse. One-third listed the correct diagnosis as the first option for patients. Half the sites had the right diagnosis among their top three results. Lead author, Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, urges patients to be cautious.

ATEEV MEHROTRA: These sites are not a replacement for going to a doctor and getting a full evaluation and a diagnosis. They are simply providing some information on what might be going on with you.

BEBINGER: Researchers entered the symptoms of 45 patients from vignettes used to train medical students. The Mayo Clinic's first diagnosis was right only 17 percent of the time, but have the correct diagnosis on a list of 20 and 76 percent of cases. Dr. John Wilkinson works on Mayo's symptom checker.

JOHN WILKINSON: We're always trying to improve, but if most of the time the correct diagnosis is included in the list of possibilities, that's all we're attempting to do.

BEBINGER: Wilkinson says the tool directs patients to medical research and prepares them to talk to their doctor. By the way, the diagnosis accuracy rate for physicians is 85 to 90 percent. But Jason Maude, who runs a high-performing tool called Isabel, says he does not want a web-versus-doctor showdown.

JASON MAUDE: The whole point is to make the patient much better informed and to ask the doctor much better questions, and then together, they should do a much better job.

BEBINGER: Giving patients a broad range of diagnoses may mean they seek unnecessary care. Clarifying how and why patients use these tools is critical, say the study's authors who estimate 100 million uses of symptom checkers this year. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

MCEVERS: This story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, WBUR and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.